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
TEXT SIZE - +
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 Anti-Keystone XL Protests Continue

Demonstrators are worried about pipeline's effect on climate change, their traditional way of life, health and safety More

Thailand's Political Power Struggle Continues

Court gave Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra until May 2 to prepare her defense over abuse of power charges but uncertainty remains over election timing More

Malaysia Plane Search Tests Limits of Ocean Mapping Technology

Expert tells VOA existing equipment’s maximum operating depth is around 6 kilometers as operation continues on ocean bed for any trace of MH370 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.
Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Messagei
X
Penelope Poulou
April 22, 2014 5:53 PM
Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Message

Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pro-Russian Separatists Plan 'Federalization Referendum' in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine say they plan to move forward next month with a referendum vote for greater autonomy, despite the Geneva agreement reached with Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine to end the political conflict. VOA's Brian Padden reports from the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.
Video

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet won worldwide acclaim for his 2005 Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins". Now Jacquet is back with a new film that takes movie-goers deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest - not only to celebrate its grandeur, but to make the case for its survival. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Boston Marathon Bittersweet for Many Runners

Monday's running of the Boston Marathon was bittersweet for many of the 36,000 participants as they finished the run that was interrupted by a double bombing last year. Many gathered along the route paid respect to the four people killed as a result of two bombings near the finish line. VOA's Carolyn Presutti returned to Boston this year to follow two runners, forever changed because of the crimes.
Video

Video International Students Learn Film Production in World's Movie Capital

Hollywood - which is part of Los Angeles - is the movie capital of the world, and many aspiring filmmakers go there in hopes of breaking into the movie business. Mike O'Sullivan reports that regional universities are also a magnet for students who hope to become producers or directors.
Video

Video Pacific Rim Trade Deal Proves Elusive

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended and American military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama has sought to pivot the country's foreign policy focus towards Asia. One aspect of that pivot is the negotiation of a free-trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But as Obama leaves this week on a trip to four Asian countries he has found it very difficult to complete the trade pact. VOA's Ken Bredemeier has more from Washington.
Video

Video Autistic Adults Face Housing, Job Challenges

Many parents of children with disabilities fear for the future of their adult child. It can be difficult to find services to help adults with disabilities - physical, mental or emotional - find work or live on their own. The mother of an autistic boy set up a foundation to advocate for the estimated 1.2 million American adults with autism, a developmental disorder that causes communication difficulties and often social difficulties. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.
AppleAndroid