Acupuncture for Pain Relief – Brain Activity During MRI

The New Jersey study, while smaller, produced similarly encouraging results. Twelve patients were monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a technology that reveals what parts of the brain are receiving increased blood flow. Increased blood flow to different areas of the brain indicates that those areas of the brain are being stimulated.

The patients were subjected to pain in the form of a tiny filament used to prick the inside or outside of their upper lip. Initial tests showed via fMRI that all 12 people reacted strongly to the pain stimulus, as there was an increased flow of blood to the subjects’ parietal areas and brain stems.

Concurrently with being pricked with the filament, seven subjects received traditional acupuncture at the Hegu point, an acupoint located between the thumb and forefinger. The remaining five subjects received electroacupuncture at the Hegu point, with a low-level electrical current being delivered through the needle.

During 30 minutes of treatment, the patients rated their pain level on a scale of one to 10 every five minutes, with the fMRI continually monitoring their brains. In four of the seven subjects who received traditional acupuncture (57%), the fMRI showed considerably decreased levels of brain activity associated with the pain.

“We found activity subsided in 60 to 70 percent of the entire brain,” said Wen-Ching Liu, an assistant professor of radiology at UMDNJ and a co-author of the study. “Interestingly, in each subject, we detected pain-induced activity in different areas of the brain.”

“We could see the brain activity associated with the pain subsiding even as the patients reported they were experiencing relief,” added Dr. Huey-Jen Lee, the study’s lead author. Lee noted that since the MRI definitively showed different brain activity, it was highly likely the increased tolerance to pain was real and not a placebo effect.

“The brain actually shows differences,” Lee said, “and that is convincing.”

Although the results of the study appear favorable for those who have been looking for proof that acupuncture works, Dr. Lee warned against jumping to conclusions. “It’s still premature,” she said of the study results. “We’d like to get more data.”

Dr. Lee expects to conduct more studies in the near future, including a project to see whether acupuncture can help relieve chronic pain in cancer patients. While the researchers don’t expect the treatment to be a panacea, they are optimistic that acupuncture could eventually be used to reduce the dosage needed for certain pain medications and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), some of which carry less than desirable side-effects.

“It is important for Western medicine to recognize that these acupoints really mean something in regard to pain relief,” Dr. Lee concluded. “So many people with pain, whether from cancer, headache or a chronic, unexplained condition, rely on medications such as morphine, which can become addicting. Acupuncture as no side effects, and other studies have shown the pain relief it provides can last for months.”

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