Is Acupuncture Scientific or Simply a Placebo?

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In a previous blog, “How Does Acupuncture Work,” I explained how the nervous system is the master controller of the body and the fact that the brain controls the nervous system. Science is now proving that acupuncture works by reestablishing normal communication between the brain and the body. In this blog I will show you some of the research that proves my point.

When an acupuncture point is stimulated, it’s affects are not localized. For example, a point on the outside of the toenail on the little toe called Bladder 67 has been used for repositioning breech babies in the womb! (See the study here) How is that possible? Stimulating that specific point created a direct link through the nervous system to the uterus to trigger the change. Thanks to modern science we are now able to SEE changes in the brain through what is called functional MRI (fMRI). Think of fMRI as doppler radar for the brain. The image below is an example of fMRI. The red area shows increased activity.

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This technology was recently used is a study through Harvard University and published in the prestigious medical journal Pain (access the article here). They wanted to see if there were changes in the brain that could be seen in patients with carpal tunnel syndrome being treated using acupuncture. Carpal tunnel syndrome is a condition where the nerve in the wrist is being compressed resulting in pain and numbness in the hand. The results below were astounding.

Let’s look at the images in “B”. The left brain is a healthy control. The middle shows a person suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome BEFORE treatment. Storms were definitely brewing as you can see from the bright yellow. Now look at the image on the right. That is the image of a carpal tunnel patient AFTER five weeks of acupuncture. Not only did they note improvement in symptoms, their brain activity is actually calmer than the healthy control!

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According the the authors:

“Neuroimaging studies in humans have validated that acupuncture modulates a widely distributed network of brain regions also involved in pain perception including limbic areas, sensorimotor and prefrontal cortices, brainstem nuclei and the cerebellum.”

In English, acupuncture has been scientifically proven through medical imaging to have a wide ranging affect on many areas of the brain. So now when someone asks me if acupuncture benefits are all in your head, I can honestly say YES!

Another study used PET-CT scans to evaluate brain changes for migraine patients undergoing acupuncture (see the study here). They concluded that:

“Acupuncture stimulation of different points on similar body regions in migraine patients reduced pain and induced different levels of cerebral glucose metabolism in pain-related brain regions. These findings may support the functional specificity of migraine treatment related acupoint.” 


But acupuncture is also proven to reduce inflammation. A study in the journal Molecular Biology uncovered how this happens.

  • Acupuncture downregulates (or turns off) pro-inflammatory cells known as M1 macrophages.
  • Acupuncture also upregulates (or activates) anti-inflammatory M2 macrophages, thereby reducing pain and swelling.
  • M2 macrophages are a source of anti-inflammatory interleukin-10 (IL-10); by upregulating M2 macrophages, acupuncture leads to an increase in IL-10, which subsequently helps relieve pain and inflammation.

Deep stuff for sure, but the main takeaway is the fact that acupuncture has proven physiological benefits that go beyond those of placebo. According to the researchers:

“Now, scientists can quantifiably measure specific biochemical processes triggered by acupuncture and the resultant positive health outcomes.”

This may help you understand how acupuncture has been of benefit for pain, but how can it possibly help with issues like high blood pressure or PMS? Research has shown how acupuncture points not only connect with the brain, but also the organs. If you are not familiar with acupuncture, the points are located on what are known as meridians. These meridians were discovered thousands of years ago and named after the organ systems they affect. The names include Liver, Lung, Small Intestine, Large Intestine, Kidney, Bladder, Stomach, Gall Bladder, Spleen, and Heart (Triple Heater and Pericardium are not traditional organs in Western medicine). There are twelve main meridians that run bilaterally in the body.

A study in the journal Nature demonstrated the direct connection between the sensory nerves in the skin and the organs of the body. Here is what they found:

“Various studies have demonstrated that acupoints show mechanical hypersensitivity and have high electrical conductance. Stimulation of acupoints produces needling sensations caused by the activation of small diameter afferent nerve fibres and therapeutic effects on the associated visceral organs, which is likely due to the release of endogenous opioids.”

This explains how acupuncture has been shown to be effective in the treatment of a variety of conditions―from asthma to irritable bowel syndrome, PMS to dermatitis. The list is much too long to mention, so for those interested in the medical research, the World Health Organization put together a comprehensive study:

ACUPUNCTURE: REVIEW AND ANALYSIS OF REPORTS ON CONTROLLED CLINICAL TRIALS

If you are still a bit unsure with respect to the medical effectiveness of acupuncture, take a look at the first minute of the 2005 BBC Documentary on acupuncture below. They set out to discover whether acupuncture’s benefits were more than a simple placebo. To lay that question to rest, you will see a young Chinese patient having open heart surgery without general anesthesia!

The evidence is undeniable. Acupuncture’s effectiveness has been proven by clinical outcomes as well as scientific research.  As the title of my blog notes, “Where Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Science,” I will continue to provide the latest research on acupuncture to help you live your life to it’s fullest. Please contact me if you have any questions. I’d be happy to discuss them with you!

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