News / Health

Acupuncture Triggers Natural Painkillers

Finding could lead to more effective, longer-lasting pain treatment

Researchers are closer to unlocking the mysteries of acupuncture, learning more about why the ancient Chinese needle treatment eases pain.
Researchers are closer to unlocking the mysteries of acupuncture, learning more about why the ancient Chinese needle treatment eases pain.

Multimedia

Audio
Faith Lapidus

Scientists have taken another important step toward understanding how acupuncture — the ancient Chinese form of needle therapy — actually eases pain. The technique has been used as a medical treatment for thousands of years, but Western medicine has been slow to adopt the practice, in part because no one could explain how it worked.

One theory was that sticking needles into certain points on the body stimulated the central nervous system to release natural pain-killing endorphins in the brain. But Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, saw a problem with that explanation.

"If you have pain in the leg or in the arm, you give acupuncture close to where you have the pain," she explains. "So, a central mechanism can't explain that, because [then it] wouldn't matter where you give the acupuncture. So we felt there had to be a local mechanism and that's why we looked into adenosine."

Prodding a natural anesthetic into action

Adenosine is a natural pain killer in our cells, which works like a local anesthetic. It's released after an injury, and inhibits nerve signals so the brain never receives the painful messages. Nedergaard explains that an acupuncture needle starts that process.

"In these cells — the muscle cell and the skin cell — they contain adenosine, but normally they don't release it.  But the needle...you can look at it as a small injury. It's not really painful, but still injures many cells," says Nedergaard. "As soon as adenosine is released it is very potent, so even if a few cells are damaged, it would give rise to a fairly substantial amount of adenosine release and reduction of pain."

Acupuncture's effectiveness as a painkiller has sometimes been attributed to the placebo effect; patients with chronic pain expect the procedure to work, and so they feel better after a treatment, even if their pain is not actually lessened.

Nedergaard and her team worked with mice, who, she points out, have no expectations, so their data has not been compromised by the placebo effect. The mice had discomfort in one paw. The researchers measured the level of pain before and after an acupuncture treatment by touching the paw with a filament and measuring the difference in reaction time.

Nedergaard says understanding the biological basis of acupuncture's effects can lead to improved results.

"Chronic pain is a big issue for patients. We don't have very good painkillers for a very large number of patients and they very often get acupuncture treatment," she says. "So, knowing that adenosine is at least one of the mediators of the painkilling effect of acupuncture, you can go in and simply slow the removal of adenosine and thereby the painkilling effect of acupuncture would last longer."

More than three times longer, Nedergaard found. She says participants at the Purines 2010 scientific meeting in Barcelona, where she presented her team's results, were excited about the findings.

"I think for the field itself, it is very easy to accept because the different steps in the [adenosine] pathway have all been described before. It's always been known that small injury gives rise (to) adenosine release, and it's also been known that adenosine is a painkiller. We just put it together that acupuncture is also injury and you get adenosine release."

Nedergaard is also excited because the drug they used to slow the removal of adenosine — a cancer medication called deoxycoformycin — is already approved by the U.S. government, so human trials may begin soon.

You May Like

Multimedia Ferguson, Missouri Streets Calm After Days of Violence

Police official says authorities responded to fewer incidents, noting there were no shootings, Molotov cocktails or fires More

Video Cambodian American Hip Hop Artist Sings of Personal Struggles

For Chanthy Sok, rap infused with Cambodian melodies is a way to pay respect to the survivors of the victims of Khmer Rouge genocide More

Study: Our Life with Neanderthals Was No Brief Affair

Scientists discover thousands of years of overlap between modern humans and their shorter, stockier cousins More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebolai
X
George Putic
August 20, 2014 8:57 PM
While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Ferguson Calls for Justice as Anger, Violence Grips Community

Violence, anger and frustration continue to grip the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Protests broke out after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager on August 9. The case has sparked outrage around the nation and prompted the White House to send U.S. Attorney Eric Holder to the small community of just over 20,000 people. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas has more from Ferguson.
Video

Video Beheading Of US Journalist Breeds Outrage

U.S. and British authorities have launched an investigation into an Islamic State video showing the beheading of kidnapped American journalist James Foley by a militant with a British accent. The extremist group, which posted the video on the Internet Tuesday, said the murder was revenge for U.S. airstrikes on militant positions in Iraq - and has threatened to execute another American journalist it is holding. Henry Ridgwell has more from London.
Video

Video Family Robots - The Next Big Thing?

Robots that can help us with daily chores like cooking and cleaning are a long way off, but automatons that serve as family companions may be much closer. Researchers in the United States, France, Japan and other countries are racing to build robots that can entertain and perform some simpler tasks for us. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.

AppleAndroid