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How Acupuncture Works: Acupuncture Addresses the Pain & The Feels

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

I am reading this paper and it's honestly a bit dense with neuroscience. I am getting more and more familiar with pain neuroscience terminology and concepts but I wanted to take a summary and explain it to people completely unfamiliar with neuroscience whatsoever, like we typically do when we explain it to patients.

I asked ChatGPT to help me and I think it did an amazing job.

cross-section of the brain with highlighted regions associated with pain and reward as well as cognition and emotion. Additional information about the release of dopamine and glutamine in various parts of the brain.

Here is the summary from the paper (be warned, it's a bit dense and hard to make heads or tails of):

"In summary, because patients with chronic pain experience pain and negative emotions, pain relief needs to not only alleviate the physiological aspect of pain but also return negative emotions (pain aversion) to normal as a reference index. Previous studies have demonstrated that adaptive changes in the brain reward/motivation loop during chronic pain may be involved in and worsen the emotional response to chronic pain. Acupuncture, including electroacupuncture, can significantly inhibit pain sensation with the immediate analgesic effect and improve pain-induced negative emotions, including anxiety and depression accompanied by pain and cognitive changes. The brain reward motivation system is activated simultaneously as acupuncture analgesia, which can relieve pain aversion by promoting the release of opioids and 5-HT in the brain reward/motivation circuit and upregulating the expression of AMY’s (Glu)Al, mGluR1, and GABAB2 proteins, thus exerting its analgesic effect." (Pan et al., 2022, p. 5)

Here is it's summary from our AI helper:

"When people have chronic pain, they not only feel physical discomfort but also negative emotions like sadness or fear because of the pain. The brain has a system that controls rewards and motivation, and during chronic pain, this system can become imbalanced, making the negative emotions even worse.

Acupuncture, a type of treatment that involves inserting thin needles into specific points on the body, can help reduce pain. It works by immediately reducing the sensation of pain and also improving the negative emotions associated with pain, like anxiety and depression. At the same time, acupuncture activates the brain's reward and motivation system.

When acupuncture is performed, it causes the brain to release certain chemicals that help relieve pain and improve mood. These chemicals include opioids and a substance called 5-HT. They work together to reduce the aversion or dislike of pain. Acupuncture also affects specific proteins in the brain that help regulate pain and emotions. So, in simple terms, acupuncture helps reduce pain and make people feel better emotionally by making the brain release natural chemicals and activating certain proteins. It's like a natural way to make pain feel less bad and improve mood at the same time."

Isn't that helpful? I think it's great.

It leaves me in awe of acupuncture in deeper layers of appreciation for how it does what it does.

The way our brains process pain involves both the physical sensations and our emotions and thoughts. This means that how we feel emotionally, such as being anxious or sad, can actually make chronic pain feel worse. However, treatments like acupuncture can help change our emotions and reduce pain, providing relief and improving our overall well-being.

Acupuncture treats both the pain and rewards centers but also alters our emotional and cognitive experiences of pain - relieving multiple layers of the problem!

I love it! Now you know a bit more about why you love it - or why you will once you try it.

Need a pain relief and/or a mental health shift? You can schedule an appointment.


Pan, S., Wang, S., Xue, X., Yuan, H., Li, J., Liu, Y., & Yue, Z. (2022). Multidimensional Pain Modulation by Acupuncture Analgesia: The Reward Effect of Acupuncture on Pain Relief. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2022, 1–9.

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