Images in study show acupuncture eases pain

Electro-acupuncture relieved pain in all patients

A small but encouraging study provides visual proof that acupuncture may offer a viable alternative to medications such as morphine for chronic pain. Researchers at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark used a relatively new form of brain imaging to assess brain activity while acupuncture techniques were being performed.

The study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to "light up" areas of brain activity based on increased blood flow in the portion of the brain being stimulated. "We’re using a new technology to understand how this 2,500-year-old technique [acupuncture] works," says Huey-Jen Lee, MD, chief of neuroradiology at the Univer sity of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, who presented the study findings at the recent 85th Scientific Assem bly and Annual Meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago.

Researchers measured the pain threshold before acupuncture was performed by inducing slight pain in 12 subjects by repeatedly using a filament to touch the outside or inside of the upper lip. In all 12 subjects, fMRI showed quite a bit of brain activity, particularly in the parietal area and the brain stem. Seven subjects received acupuncture with manual stimulation, in which a hair-thin acupuncture needle is inserted and twisted manually. The remaining five subjects received electro-acupuncture with low-level electrical current stimulation through the needle.

Functional MRI was performed repeatedly during pain stimulation, and brain activities were recorded. Then, the patient received a 30-minute period of acupuncture stimulation. During the 30-minute period, subjects rated their pain every five minutes on a scale of one to 10.

Researchers found that 57% of subjects receiving manual acupuncture and 100% of subjects receiving electro-acupuncture showed significantly decreased brain activity. In addition, those decreases in brain activity corresponded with the decreased levels of pain the subjects reported experiencing.

"We found activity subsided in 60% to 70% of the entire brain," says Wendy Ching Liu, PhD, assistant professor of radiology at the Univer - sity of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. "Interestingly, in each subject, we detected pain-induced activity in different areas of the brain."

"So many people with pain, whether from cancer, headache, or a chronic unexplained con dition, rely on medications such as morphine, which can become addicting," says Lee. "Acu punc ture has no side effects, and other studies have shown that the pain relief it provides can last for months."