Cristi DeMarco’s Wellness Weblog

Health Info You Should Know.

Acupuncture: Helping the body to heal itself

Acupuncture helps the body to heal itself.  Hmmm…that sounds nice but what does it mean?  As a proponent of complementary medicine in general and acupuncture more specifically, I try to keep up with current topics in my area of interest.  In doing this, I attempt to hold true to my holistic foundation and take it all; the good, the bad, and the ugly so I read the pro-acupuncture and con-acupuncture articles with equal interest.   One topic that generated a lot of skeptic responses was a Cochrane review of studies on acupuncture for headaches.  The review showed that acupuncture does provide a positive analgesic effect on both tension and migraine headaches.  For migraines, the conclusion states that  “Available studies suggest that acupuncture is at least as effective as, or possibly more effective than, prophylactic drug treatment, and has fewer adverse effects” and for tension headaches “acupuncture could be a valuable non-pharmacological tool in patients with frequent episodic or chronic tension-type headaches”.  For those of us who practice and/or benefit from acupuncture treatments, we take this news and say, great, we knew it, let’s move on.

For those people who would rather waste their time proving how something doesn’t work than on finding something that does work,  a juicy little point for debate is how it is unclear from these trials whether the specific placement of the needles makes for a better outcome of the treatment.  In order for clinical trials to be legit, there needs to be an experimental group and a control group.  In some cases the control group was no care or usual care and in some it was something called sham acupuncture.  Sham acupuncture involves placing needles on areas of the body that are not actual acupuncture points or are acupuncture points that would not normally be used for the condition being treated.  In the trials where sham or fake acupuncture was used, the headaches still got better.  Now, throwing around the word “fake” is all it takes for the nay-sayers to get their evidence-based medicine pants all in a bundle and denounce acupuncture as an illegitimate practice that is all in the mind, and it’s just the placebo effect.  Never mind that the peoples’ pain got better, and that these statements are a gross over-simplification of the mechanisms at work with acupuncture.

Based on my clinical practice and available research, I would say that the effects of acupuncture are a complex interaction of Chinese medical theory and various physiological responses resulting from the insertion of needles.

One point to be made is that if we claim that acupuncture stimulates the body to heal itself, and the mind and body are connected, then isn’t that what the placebo effect is?  Luckily there are researchers who are currently investigating the placebo effect as a valid treatment outcome and attempting to tease out the mechanism of the placebo effect as compared to the mechanism of acupuncture analgesia.  In a study conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital, researchers concluded “our study provides brain imaging evidence for the existence of different mechanisms underlying acupuncture analgesia and expectancy evoked placebo analgesia. Our results also suggest that the brain network involved in expectancy may vary under different treatment situations (verum and sham acupuncture treatment).”

Another study by the Radiological Association of North America used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)-basically taking pictures of the brain in real time- while patients experienced a pain stimulus to their ankle and then were treated with acupuncture.  The acupuncture group was  compared to a pain stimulus only group.  They concluded that pain perception was reduced and the expectation of pain was reduced.  The former might be considered by some to be the “real” effect and the latter the placebo effect but the fact is that changes in areas of the brain related to pain are occurring in relation to the acupuncture and that is real enough for me.


March 8, 2011 Posted by | acupuncture, health info you should know | , , , | Leave a comment