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Acupuncture May Change the Way the Brain Perceives Pain

The idea of pricking your body with needles in order to relieve pain seems nothing if not counter intuitive, but thousands of acupuncture patients swear the treatments are effective in addressing pain of all kinds.

But how does it work? How much of the relief is due to the placebo effect — the mere perception that the needles are actually dulling pain — as opposed to a real biological change in the way nerves signal the brain to pain?

A new study lends support to the notion that acupuncture may actually modulate the brain’s perception of pain. In a study that used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track brain activity both before and during acupuncture, researchers led by Dr. Nina Theysohn at the University Hospital in Essen, Germany, and colleagues at University of Duisburg-Essen documented a specific pattern of brain activation during acupuncture that may represent an accessible pathway for addressing pain.

In the small trial, which involved 18 volunteers, each volunteer was placed in the fMRI scanner and then given a small electrical stimulus in the left ankle to generate pain. Acupuncture needles were then inserted at three places on the right side corresponding to regions known to modulate the ankle pain, and the fMRI was repeated. Comparing the brain scans before and after acupuncture, the scientists found that areas of the brain that were active during the pain stimulus were dampened during acupuncture, suggesting that the needles actually do cause a change in the way that the brain perceives and processes pain.

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