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In the last forty years, science has made great strides in understanding the connection between acupuncture therapy and pain. Specifically, research has focused on the effects of acupuncture, especially where pain and analgesics are concerned.

Traditional Chinese medicine views of acupuncture suggest the existence of an energy called “qi,” which streams throughout the body and organs through a network of “meridians.” When balanced, this energy promotes health and when it is unbalanced, it leads to illness. Qi can be directly influenced at acupuncture points through needles, pressure, and heat, and indirectly through exercise, meditation, and lifestyle. Dr. Carlos Durana, an acupuncture practitioner with offices in Reston, Bethesda and Washington DC, brings this same level of acupuncture therapy pain management to clients in the area.

Western Scientific research has not focused on the existence of qi or meridians. Early research by Pomeranz on mice suggested that acupuncture influences the release of endorphins and enkephalins, the body’s natural morphine-like substances that are released in the brain. Other research suggests that acupuncture treatment regulates brain function and neurotransmitter modulators such as norepinephrine, acetylcholine and opioids to normalize autonomic nervous system function and reduce pain.

Since the late 1990s, imaging studies (MRI and FMRI, or functional magnetic resonance imaging) have looked at brain responses to acupuncture point stimulation. Those FMRI studies (LINK – University of California School of Medicine) have revealed the activation of pain processing areas in the brain as a response to acupuncture stimulation. Other studies have looked at the use of specific points traditionally used for influencing specific body functions. For example, the stimulation of point LIV 3 was found to activate the visual cortex, or the point used clinically to improve eye function. Some of these studies are promising but further research is needed to validate the results.  More recently, a study by Maiken Nedergaard and others has suggested that the analgesic effect of acupuncture needling may be associated with the secretion of a substance called adenosine; the chemical that inhibits pain receptors without creating side effects.

In order to rule out the possible role of placebo effect in humans, adenosine studies were conducted in mice.  The paws of the mice were stimulated to cause pain. Mice were then treated using a classic acupuncture point on the leg, ST36 for 30’. After treatment, the pain response of pulling the paw away took three to four times as long.  In addition, analysis of body fluids in the area treated showed a 24-fold increase in the concentration of adenosine. The increase of adenosine coincided with studies showing amounts of adenosine increasing in electrically stimulated nerve cells in the brain.  It seems that adenosine has a positive effect in increasing blood flow and nutrients to surrounding tissues. Adenosine also has the effect of calming cells under stress.

These researchers went further to corroborate acupuncture therapy and the production of adenosine. Injections of mice with CCPR, a compound which binds adenosine receptors, had the same effect as acupuncture.  Injections of CCPR also showed that it blocked the reception of pain signals at the anterior cingulate cortex in the brain, an area that plays an important role in the perception of pain.

In other studies, adenosine has been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect in many health conditions of the muscles and joints. Adenosine also plays a role in the dilation of blood pressure and in irregular heartbeat. Although acupuncture has been used traditionally in the treatment of these conditions, its effectiveness in their treatment has not been scientifically researched.

Dr. Durana is a trusted acupuncture therapy provider with offices in Reston, Bethesda and Washington DC with decades of experience managing pain through acupuncture. He believes that one of the most important features of acupuncture is that it can be used safely and without side effects or risks to the individual when used by an experienced practitioner. More research needs to be done for understanding the mechanisms responsible for the effects of acupuncture treatment in the prevention, and treatment of many health conditions, and in its role in wellness enhancement and pain management.

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