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Is There Science Behind Acupuncture?

Introducing Acupuncture

Acupuncture is the practice of relieving pain and improving someone’s overall wellness by inserting thin needles into their skin at strategic points. Traditional Chinese medicine claims that diseases that decrease people’s health and make people uncomfortable are caused by an unbalanced energy flow (Qi) in their bodies, and acupuncture is used to restore that energy flow to get well. In contrast, modern medicine explains this practice as a way of stimulating nerves and muscles to stimulate the body’s natural healing system or decrease impulses associated with feeling pain. Sometimes electrical pulses are also used on top of needles for more stimulation.

Specifically, acupuncture has been used in modern medicine to lessen nausea and vomiting caused by surgery and chemotherapy, relieve dental pain, menstrual cramps, labour pain, lower back pain, headaches, and a variety of other conditions causing discomfort. Acupuncture can also help people relax. Below is a list that shows what acupuncture has been used for or might help with.

  • Digestive: Gastritis, Irritable bowel syndrome, Hepatitis, Hemorrhoids

  • Eye-Ear-Throat: Rhinitis, Sinusitis

  • Musculoskeletal: Arthritis, Back pain, Muscle cramping, Muscle pain and weakness, Neck pain, Sciatica

  • Respiratory: Allergic rhinitis, Sinusitis, Bronchitis

  • Emotional: Anxiety, Depression, Insomnia, Neurosis

  • Gynecological: Menstrual pain, Infertility

  • Neurological: Headaches, Migraine, Neurogenic bladder dysfunction, Parkinson’s disease, Postoperative pain, Stroke

  • Miscellaneous: Irritable bladder, Prostatitis, Male infertility, Addiction

Acupuncture may not be beneficial to everyone, so it is recommended that anyone considering acupuncture should consult with a doctor first. Oftentimes, there are very few side effects in acupuncture therapy, so it could be worth a try. However, people who have a bleeding disorder, people who use a pacemaker, and pregnant people should be more careful with acupuncture. The needles could make people with a bleeding disorder bleed or bruise. If acupuncture is done with electrical pulses, it could disturb the operation of the pacemaker. In certain points, acupuncture is thought to promote labour, which is possibly leading to premature delivery.

People considering acupuncture should also be careful about their practitioners. Acupuncture can relieve pain and have few side effects if done correctly, but it can also cause some adverse effects if done incorrectly. Check the practitioner’s credentials and seek practitioners that trusted friends and family members recommend.

Evidence of Acupuncture

Often, acupuncture is thought to be a type of therapy that has not been proven to work scientifically. Recently, there have been studies suggesting a relationship between stimulation of acupoints and a reaction in parts of the brain that control functions that are remote from the stimulated point. However, some studies still say there is no scientific proof that acupuncture works, so take this article to explain the science behind acupuncture with a grain of salt, as research in this sector is still relatively new.

Studies that try to prove the science behind acupuncture use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to see how the brain behaves when needles are placed at specific acupoints. This is a noninvasive and effective way to observe how the brain reacts to acupuncture stimulations. How fMRI works are to show the magnetic changes caused when blood is oxygenated or deoxygenated in the brain, based on blood flow. This is used to interpret where there is stimulated brain activity.

In one experiment, a sample of 28 healthy young adults received acupuncture treatment with fragile, single-use, sterile, stainless steel needles measuring 0.16mm wide and 25mm long. This test was done with two proper acupoints, Bladder 60 (B60) and Kidney 3 (K3), and one sham acupoint Spleen 6 (S6). The hypothesis was that the visual cortex would increase MR signal density when the B60 point is stimulated and an increase in MR signal density when the K3 point is stimulated, while there will be no increase when the S6 point is stimulated.

The MRI images for when the B60 acupoint that is said to help with visual healing was stimulated showed a significant increase in MR signal density in the brain's visual cortex. There was no increase in MR signal density anywhere else in the brain. The MRI images for when the K3 acupoint that is supposed to help with auditory functions was stimulated showed a significant increase in MR signal density in and only in the auditory cortex. When this experiment was done with the S3 point, which is a real acupoint that is supposed to help with digestion but a sham point for vision and hearing, there was no signal density increase in either the visual or auditory cortex. This study showed that there is a relationship between acupuncture stimulation and brain activity in the expected cortexes.

An activation map that shows the B60 point stimulation resulted in an increase in MR signal density in the visual cortex (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov).

An activation map that shows the K3 point stimulation resulted in an increase in MR signal density in the auditory cortex (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov).

An activation map that shows the S6 point stimulation resulted in no increase in MR signal density in the visual or auditory cortex (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov).

This study isn’t the only study that was done to study acupuncture and brain activity. There are studies published on Autonomic Neuroscience, and an article at this link, that goes into more depth about what each acupoint is supposed to treat and brain activity connections that have been made through fMRI. But there haven’t been enough, more up-to-date, more well-known studies that can prove the exact science behind acupuncture beyond a reasonable doubt. Dating back hundreds and thousands of years in Traditional Chinese Medicine, it is said that people were treated and were healed from acupuncture, although it most likely isn’t because of balancing Qi in our bodies. Even if there was an exaggeration or false experimentation, mistaking correlation and causation, I could not simply believe that there isn’t any truth behind Traditional Chinese Medicine and acupuncture. As of now, I would like to think of acupuncture as something that has seen success in clinical practice but remains a mystery. Hopefully, one day, there will be more studies and evidence to explain the science behind acupuncture. If not explained, debunking the science would also be fine, thus finally solving the mystery.

Here is another interesting article about acupuncture.

Article author: Ivy Sun

Article editors: Sherilyn Wen, Stephanie Sahadeo