This past spring, the FDA released new guidelines that include acupuncture as a valid therapy for treating pain. At least some of this comes from the need to emphasize drug-free therapies in the midst of the ongoing crisis of opioid abuse.
“[Health care providers] should be knowledgeable about the range of available therapies, when they may be helpful, and when they should be used as part of a multidisciplinary approach to pain management,” the agency wrote in the proposal.
At the same time, science continues to reveal more about what happens physiologically when acupuncture is done.
Just last week came news of a small but intriguing study that found acupuncture, properly done, appears to raise levels of nitric oxide. This, in turn, increases blood flow and spurs the release of the body’s natural pain-relieving substances.
For the latest study, the LA BioMed researchers used a low force and rate/reinforcement method of acupuncture. They gently inserted acupuncture needles into the skin of 25 men and women, aged 18-60 years, and delicately twisted the needles for two minutes or until they achieved a sensation of “de qi” (soreness, numbness, distension or pain). They then manipulated the needles using gentle amplitude and moderate speed for two minutes every five minutes for a total of 20 minutes.
They also applied electrical heat for 20 minutes and found elevated levels of nitric oxide at the acupoints. To further validate their findings, they conducted the test with high-frequency and force, which is known as a reduction method, and found nitric oxide levels over the areas of the skin region were reduced.
Another recent study looked at acupuncture’s impact on carpal tunnel syndrome – a condition chosen at least partly because it’s one of the few chronic pain disorders with measurable, objective outcomes.
Here, three groups were studied. One had needles inserted at sites on the wrist meridian but far away from the wrist itself; one had them inserted at the wrist; one served as a control group and had sham acupuncture. Sixteen total treatments were given over the course of two months.
All groups reported improved symptoms, but there was one big difference. As an article in Popular Science described it,
[Study author Vitaly] Napadow found that while participants in all three categories stated that they felt an improvement in pain, only participants who had received acupuncture—either at the site of the pain, or, somewhat surprisingly, via those mysterious “energy channels”—actually experienced nerve transmission improvements. And to further make the case, participants who had needles inserted right at the wrist did indeed improve even more than those who received distal needle acupuncture.
Earlier studies had shown that carpal tunnel doesn’t just causes changes in the wrist—it also causes changes in regions of the brain’s gray matter. The nerve damage in the wrist creates a sort of blurring in the brain in terms of its ability to process signals from the hand. When Napadow stuck study participants in an fMRI, he found that those pathways in the brain had improved, though he’s quick to note that even these impressive outcomes don’t equate to ‘curing’ carpal tunnel. “We improved the disorder and certainly kept it from getting worse, but we did not magically heal the patient,” he says.
This is impressive stuff.
Of course, acupuncture is just one safe and effective option for addressing chronic pain. Ozone and prolozone therapy can both be excellent ways of moving beyond drug-focused “pain management.” In other cases, nutritional balancing may be helpful – or addressing issues such as sleep deficits and chronic stress that can wear down a body’s resilience.
As always, the ideal is to find the cause of the pain or dysfunction and from there, choose the most appropriate therapy for addressing it and supporting healing.
Image by Marnie Joyce, via Flickr