Acupuncture restores functional connectivity & other amazing discoveries from neuroimaging research.
It could be said that acupuncture is essentially a minimally invasive yet sufficiently effective neurological treatment. With minimal injury, pain, harm, time, and/or expense, acupuncture helps restore optimal brain function, and one of the primary functions of the brain is to manage and control pain. This is the repeated and unavoidable conclusion we see in the ongoing neuroscience and functional neuroimaging research being published. This is on top of decades of clinical trials and on top of millennia of empirical evidence from effective treatment.
Acupuncture, via gentle stimulation of nerves, stimulates a self-regulating and self-correcting cycle within the central nervous system and its overlapping support systems (e.g. immune system, endocrine system, cardiopulmonary system, digestive system). This self-regulating cycle of correction helps jump-start the brain to reconnect its various components, which then work more efficiently to manage pain signals, and all other primary autonomic functions we associate with healthy and normal function.
Does acupuncture work for pain? Does acupuncture work for migraines and other neurological disorders? And why does it work?
Acupuncture works and we know it works very well for pain.
Recent researchers performing placebo-controlled trials using functional neuroimaging note the status of evidence for acupuncture treating migraine without aura (Liu et al., 2022), stating:
Accumulating evidence has endorsed the potential of acupuncture treatment for MWoA (Li et al., 2012, Wang et al., 2011, Xu et al., 2020, Zhao et al., 2017). A meta-analysis from The Cochrane Collaboration reported that acupuncture might have an effect similar to preventive medications (Linde et al., 2016). Based on these findings, the latest consensus statement from the European Headache Federation and the European Academy of Neurology has recommended acupuncture as a stand-alone preventive treatment when medication is contraindicated (Eigenbrodt et al., 2021).
Acupuncture done correctly, done regularly/frequently, and done in a skilled way, works well to reduce or eliminate pain (Vickers et al., 2018). We can easily see this in repeated placebo-controlled trials that demonstrate that needling specific acupuncture points (i.e. neurovascular bundles with a high potential for eliciting a therapeutic effect on the central nervous system), signal to the brain in ways that lead to less pain, less symptoms, improved sense of well-being, etc.. This is in contrast to sticking needles into non-specific, random places on the body that are called "sham acupuncture points". Needling randomly around the body does not achieve the same breadth and length of effective brain changes or improvement of clinical symptoms (e.g. pain, frequency of headache, etc.).
Acupuncture neuroscience research and advances in functional neuroimaging are helping piece together new understandings of how the various parts of the brain work in concert to achieve the highly emergent and complex multi-sensory experience we all have of being embodied. This research is also showing us how acupuncture works beyond just clinical results, but in real-time, in the brain as acupuncture slowly corrects the brain and its patterns of disease or integrity of function.
A Deeper Dive into a Recent Study on Migraines, Functional Connectivity in the Brain, and Acupuncture as Treatment
(come back for more later)
Liu, L., Lyu, T.-L., Fu, M.-Y., Wang, L.-P., Chen, Y., Hong, J.-H., Chen, Q.-Y., Zhu, Y.-P., Tan, Z.-J., Liu, D.-P., Chen, Z.-W., Kong, Y.-Z., & Li, B. (2022). Changes in brain connectivity linked to multisensory processing of pain modulation in migraine with acupuncture treatment. NeuroImage: Clinical, 103168. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nicl.2022.103168
Vickers, A. J., Vertosick, E. A., Lewith, G., MacPherson, H., Foster, N. E., Sherman, K. J., Irnich, D., Witt, C. M., & Linde, K. (2018). Acupuncture for Chronic Pain: Update of an Individual Patient Data Meta-Analysis. The Journal of Pain, 19(5), 455–474. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2017.11.005