How Acupuncture Works to Relieve Pain

For years, much of acupuncture research has focused on the release of opiates and other pain relieving chemicals in the brain.

A recent study in the journal Nature Neuroscience looked at what happens locally near the needle insertion to relieve pain.

After an acupuncture needle was inserted at the acupuncture point Zu San Li (St 36) and stimulated by twirling every five minutes for a half hour, the cells around the acupuncture needle released the anti-inflammatory and pain relieving chemical called adenosine.  The concentration of adenosine remained high for at least 60 minutes after the treatment.  Also, they found that acupuncture stimulates a specific pain relieving receptor on the neurons, which is called A1.  This receptor is stimulated by many pain medications as well. What is remarkable is that acupuncture targets the receptors in areas close to the pain.

Interestingly, this effect does not occur when the researchers do not twirl the needle.

Why do they twirl the needle?

Twirling the acupuncture needle

The art of acupuncture is not only inserting the needle but also manipulating it after the insertion.  Often the needle is rapidly twirled in a small circle. Depending on the type of manipulation, one can stimulate the circulation of qi or boost the production of qi. The feeling the patient has is called “Getting the Qi.”

By adding the twirled acupuncture, these researchers were replicating what happens in a real treatment, a very important aspect to high quality research.

It is exciting that researchers are piecing together how acupuncture works to relieve pain, both at the needle site as well as in the central nervous system.

Read more about how acupuncture relieves pain:

Joseph Alban, L.Ac.
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