From pain to relief: unlocking the secrets of acupuncture

By Carrie Johnson • Published: September 1st, 2010
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Acupuncture seems counterintuitive to most westerners. How on earth does sticking needles in somebody actually make them feel better? Scientists say a recent discovery may shed new light on this centuries-old practice.

For the uninitiated, acupuncture is the practice of inserting the tips of needles into the body to either relieve pain or promote good health. It was first developed by the Chinese, and may have been used as early as sixteen-hundred B.C.

But the real question is, why would this work? Researchers working with mice may have found a clue. They located a molecule called adenosine [ad-ah-NO-seen] that appears to be involved in creating the physical effects of acupuncture. Not only does adenosine help regulate sleep and act as an anti-inflammatory agent, it also a natural painkiller. The body develops more of it after an injury because it quiets the nerve endings that transmit pain to the brain.

To test the theory, researchers at the University of Rochester performed an experiment on mice that were experiencing discomfort in one paw. Each mouse received a thirty-minute acupuncture treatment near the knee. They found that mice experienced a dramatic drop in pain. The researchers also found the amount of adenosine in the tissue near the needles increased twenty-four times. To further bolster their conclusion, the researchers also tested the effects of a cancer drug that makes it harder for tissue to dispel adenosine. They found the drug improved the effects of the acupuncture treatment.

While the ancient Chinese say acupuncture works because it improves flow and modern researchers claim it boosts this natural painkiller, they both agree on one thing: Sticking needles in your body isn’t as crazy as it seems, as long as it’s handled by an expert!