The Chinese have used acupuncture for thousands of years to help manage pain, but exactly how it works has been a mystery—until now. Although scientists speculated that acupuncture possibly activates the body’s natural painkillers, there was no solid scientific evidence, and many experts believed its pain-relieving reputation was nothing more than a placebo effect.
Researchers at the University of Michigan used brain imagining to find evidence that traditional Chinese acupuncture actually affects the brain’s long-term ability to manage pain. Their study discovered that acupuncture increases the binding ability of mu-opioid receptors in the regions of the brain that process and control pain signals. Opioid painkillers, such as morphine and codeine, bind to these receptors.
“The increased binding availability of these receptors was associated with reductions in pain,” says Richard E. Harris, Ph.D., researcher at the University of Michigan Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center. Treating victims of chronic pain with acupuncture may make their opioid medications work better because the pain-relieving medication can attach to more receptors and increase their effectiveness.
Results of the study will appear in the September “Journal of NeuroImage.”