Acupuncture may be more effective in treating some chronic pain ailments than previously thought.
Researchers in a study published today in the journal Brain concluded that acupuncture helped relieve pain for people with carpal tunnel syndrome.
The researchers said the acupuncture helped reduce symptoms by “remapping” the brain.
They added the therapy also provided some healing effects at the source of the pain in the patients’ wrists.
Vitaly Napadow, PhD, director of the Center for Integrative Pain Neuroimaging, and senior author of the research paper, said his group hopes to do more research on acupuncture’s effectiveness on carpal tunnel and other chronic pain ailments.
“One of the benefits of acupuncture is it’s so minimally invasive and has such a low-risk profile,” Napadow told Healthline.
What researchers discovered
In this study, 80 people with an average age of 49 were tested.
The volunteers, 65 of whom were women, were divided into three groups.
One group was treated with verum electro-acupuncture at the wrist.
Another group was given the acupuncture therapy in an ankle on the opposite side of their affected wrist.
The third group was given “sham acupuncture” treatments as a control.
They were each given 16 treatments over eight weeks. The participants were evaluated after the treatments and then reevaluated three months later.
Napadow said all three groups reported some relief from pain.
However, he said the two groups that received acupuncture also showed some physiological changes.
High-tech imaging revealed the acupuncture had caused some mapping changes in the brain.
In addition, there appeared to be some healing effects in participants’ wrists.
The group that received treatment in their wrists showed more benefits than the people who got acupuncture in their ankles.
Why acupuncture is effective
This study was not the first to show that acupuncture can be effective on carpal tunnel syndrome.
Researchers conducted studies in and 2016 and reported that study participants experienced pain relief after receiving acupuncture.
However, Napadow said his group’s study also measured the physical changes acupuncture produced.
He said the signals the brain receives after an acupuncture needle is stuck into the skin may in essence “remap” the brain so it modifies pain signals from the wrist.
In addition, he said, the needle punctures at the pain point may cause the body to send extra blood to that spot, much like what happens during bruising.
That additional blood may help damaged nerves to heal.
“There seem to be some top down effects,” he noted.
Greater use of acupuncture
Napadow said acupuncture is an alternative treatment that some people may want to consider before using drugs, or an invasive type of procedure such as surgery, for any kind of chronic pain ailment.
He added that acupuncture is already recommended in a number of guidelines for various chronic pain conditions.
He said the biggest barrier right now is getting insurance companies to cover these alternative treatments.
For people who might be reluctant to try this ancient Chinese treatment, Napadow said they should consider the validity of the therapy.
“People should focus not so much on the origin of the therapy but rather what it’s doing,” he said.