Acupuncture does combat pain, study finds

Ever since Westerners started using acupuncture to treat their aches and pains, a debate has raged as to whether the ancient Chinese medicine really did work.

Now scientists have discovered that deep-needle acupuncture can combat pain.

A study found that the technique can turn off parts of the brain involved in pain, which could explain how the practice may work as an anaesthetic.

Researchers found that an acupuncture technique using deep needling led to the deactivaton of part of the brain's limbic system, which helps the body to be conscious of pain.

Neuroscientists believe that the findings show that acupuncture has a measurable effect on the brain and that the study could provide a possible mechanism to explain how acupuncture can relieve pain.

The research was carried out on a set of volunteers by scientists at Hull York Medical School as part of a new BBC TV series called Alternative Medicine: The Evidence, to be broadcast on Tuesday evening on BBC2.

Professor Kathy Sykes of Bristol University, who will present the programme, said that the medical school's MRI brain scanners showed that certain forms of acupuncture have a deep and measurable effect on the brain.

"The particular area of the brain that MRI shows deactivation for during acupuncture is part of the pain matrix which is involved in the perception of pain," Professor Sykes said. "It helps someone decide whether something is painful or not. So it could be that acupuncture in some ways changes a person's pain threshold."

The study tested two forms of acupuncture on separate sets of volunteers. One involved inserting needles into the skin on the back of the hand by about a millimetre. The other inserted needles up to a centimetre into the same pressure points.

Brain scanning images of the group that underwent superficial needling show nerve activation in the motor cortex of the brain, the area that normally responds to touch or pain.

However, when the acupuncturist used the deeper needles, which were also rotated as part of an acupunctural effect called de chi, the scientists found a measurable deactivation in the brain's limbic system.

Mark Lythgoe, a neuroscientist at University College London who helped to oversee the study, said that the findings were significant because they demonstrated a physical effect on the brain. "This may account for the way it works. This is a possible novel neurobiological mechanism for the action of acupuncture," Dr Lythgoe said.

As part of the programme, Professor Sykes visited China, where she witnessed a conscious patient undergoing open-heart surgery with the help of acupuncture but without the use of general anaesthetics.

The people in the study who experienced deep-needle acupuncture said that they felt a tingling sensation but not pain. The scientists said they were used to seeing drugs or other medical treatments activating parts of the brain and they were surprised to see something that had the opposite effect.

"I'm just thrilled that we managed to do a real scientific experiment, shaped and run by scientists and acupuncturists together, where we found something quite unexpected - that acupuncture is having a measurable effect on the brain," Professor Sykes said.

The BBC series will also investigate other forms of alternative medicine, such as healing and herbalism.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Day In a Page

Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

How Etsy became a crafty little earner

The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

Don't fear the artichoke

Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
11 best men's socks

11 best men's socks

Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

Paul Scholes column

Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

Frank Warren's Ringside

Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

Khorasan is back in Syria

America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

On the campaign trail with Ukip

Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

Expect a rush on men's tights

Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions
Peter Kay's Car Share: BBC show is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade

In the driving seat: Peter Kay

Car Share is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade. The programme's co-creator Paul Coleman reveals the challenges of getting the show on the road