Study Suggests Acupuncture Can Remap the Brain to Relieve Chronic Pain

Research shows acupuncture potential in the treatment of chronic pain.

As each person experiences pain very differently the study of the role of acupuncture in treating chronic pain can be challenging as setting objective pain measurements can be tricky. However a recent study involving patients suffering carpal tunnel syndrome, validated the patient’s pain levels by measuring electrical conduction across the median nerve. The study also examined the way the patients' brains reacted to the pain from carpal tunnel syndrome.

Brain scanning using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of selected patients showed, when particular fingers were manipulated, pressure on the meridian nerve was increased (and also pain associated with CTS) a corresponding area of the brain was activated. What the researchers were seeing was a part of the brain known as the primary somatosensory cortex was effectively ‘remapped’ by CTS.

During the study, patients suffering from CTS were divided into two groups. The first group was given real acupuncture treatment, the second group was given sham acupuncture. Sham acupuncture is a placebo version of true acupuncture used only in research trials. All patients in the study reported having improved symptoms of CTS (that is they experienced less pain or discomfort). However, the patients that received the real acupuncture actually experience long-term improvement of their health, while sham/placebo patients did not have ongoing recovery. The same part of the brain was re-scanned following the acupuncture treatment and shows that S1 re-mapping immediately following therapy was linked with better long-term symptom reduction.

Researchers have concluded that this study is a good example of the functional response to acupuncture (ie the patients felt better) but it also changes the brain response and mapping. While there are still many questions to be answered about the ways that acupuncture actually relieves pain, this study is the first in many exciting steps to using acupuncture as a reliable way to treat chronic pain.

For more information about the role of acupuncture in treating chronic pain conditions

For further information on Chinese Medicine contact Dr Nicole Trudgeon (Chinese medicine Practitioner). Nicole is a practitioner of acupuncture and chinese herbal medicine (AHPRA registered) at her Booragoon clinic and is a sessional Chinese Medicine Lecturer at the Endeavour College of Natural Health Perth campus.