SciTech

HealthTalk: Acupuncture

Typical acupuncture needles are thinner than hypodermic needles, allowing them to insert painlessly. (credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) Typical acupuncture needles are thinner than hypodermic needles, allowing them to insert painlessly. (credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The ancient Chinese believed that an energy, called “qi,” flows through the body and maintains health. The energy moves through pathways in the body called meridians. If this flow were disrupted, it would result in ill health or disease. To restore the correct flow of energy, the Chinese would insert needles at certain points along these pathways, a technique known as acupuncture. As explained in an article on www.MayoClinic.com, acupuncture originated more than 2,000 years ago in China and over the past 30 years has become a popular medical tool.

Today, acupuncture involves inserting thin metal needles at various points throughout the patient’s body. Although the theory of qi and meridians, still believed by traditional Chinese practitioners, is not widely accepted among Westerners, studies have shown that acupuncture is useful for a variety of medical conditions. Acupuncture has been known to help patients with osteoarthritis and to ease the feeling of nausea after chemotherapy. It also can act as a painkiller for several conditions including headaches, migraines, pain after dental surgeries, and even labor pain.

Although the exact mechanism by which acupuncture works is still unknown, certain theories have been made. According to an article on www.MedicineNet.com, scientists believe that the needles might stimulate certain sensory nerves and cause a series of effects. One possible effect of this nerve stimulation is the release of opioids produced in the body. Opioids are a class of chemicals that act as painkillers; one of the more well-known members of the group is morphine. The human body produces certain endogenous opioids or endorphins, which bind to receptors in the brain and help reduce the feeling of pain. Studies have shown that if chemicals that counteract the effects of opioids are administered during acupuncture, the acupuncture treatment has no effect.

Another theory that has been proposed is that acupuncture helps stimulate the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland regulates the release of a variety of hormones that travel through the body. Hence, stimulation of this gland could cause a multitude of different effects on many parts of the body.

Acupuncture has also been known to alter the regulation of blood flow in the body.

Although there is some concrete evidence proving the effectiveness of acupuncture and the science behind it, some people still believe that acupuncture has no real effects on the body. According to a study published online this month in the Arthritis Care & Research journal, patients who received traditional Chinese acupuncture treatment and those in the control group, who had “sham” acupuncture treatment, reported similar after-effects of the treatment. The “sham” acupuncture treatment consists of inserting needles at random points throughout the body that are not the correct centers for stimulation.

Although this study suggests that traditional acupuncture treatment has no effect on the body, many scientists doubt the effectiveness of sham acupuncture as a control. Traditional acupuncture practitioners place needles at points specified by the ancient Chinese. The scientific basis for such placement is still unknown. In sham acupuncture, the needles are placed at points not specified by the ancient Chinese. However, since there is such little understanding of the importance of the specific needle placement points, scientists believe that placing the needles at any point could cause positive results. Therefore, for studies concerning the effectiveness of acupuncture to be more accurate, a better control needs to be designed.