Acupuncture does have a point
- PETER RANSCOMBE
ACUPUNCTURE does reduce pain in the human body, British scientists
Sceptics have long claimed that the ancient Chinese treatment, which
involves pricking the skin with needles, only gives relief because
patients expect it to.
Now researchers from University College London and Southampton
University have discovered that the alternative medicine treatment
goes beyond such a psychological placebo effect and causes a
specific reaction in the brain.
The scientists carried out a series of experiments that used
positron emission tomography (PET) to scan the patients' brains as
they underwent treatment. The 14 volunteers taking part in the tests
all suffered pain from osteoarthritis, which responds to
acupuncture, according to previous research.
Each patient was given three treatments in a random order and their
responses were studied using the PET scanner.
In the first experiment, the volunteers were pricked with blunt
needles, which stimulated only parts of the brain associated with
The second test involved treating the patients with "fake"
acupuncture using Streitberger needles, which are similar to stage
daggers. The tip of the needle retreats into the shaft when it is
pushed against the patient's body but, when the patients were
surveyed later, they still thought they had received real
In this test, there was a response in the part of the brain that
produces opiates - non- specific pain relief substances.
This psychological response was also seen when the patients received
real acupuncture, but a second result was also observed. Only the
real acupuncture stimulated another region of the brain, called the
insular. This area is known from previous work to be linked to
acupuncture and is thought to be involved in pain modulation.
None of the volunteers - recruited from the orthopaedic department
at Southampton General Hospital - had taken painkillers or alcohol
during the day before the study.
Joanne Wood, an acupuncturist from Edinburgh, welcomed the
news. "It's great that scientific research is now going on into
acupuncture because we've been waiting for this for some time now,"
she said. "There just hasn't been funding to support it in the past
but we've been shouting for it for a long time.
"It's great to have scientific backing. It will be good news, not
only for the profession, but also for people who want to seek
Miss Wood, who has been an acupuncturist for three years and
practises from home, added: "Acupuncture can help not just illnesses
of a physical nature but of a mental nature as well. In my practice,
I see people who suffer a lot from manic depression - bipolar
disorder - and also physical ailments, such as chronic fatigue.
"I think this research is going to allow people to trust in, and
look at, acupuncture as a way to cure their illness or at least make
them feel much better."
Sarah Williams, of the British Acupuncture Council, said: "This
research is very positive news for acupuncture and is an exciting
illustration of what acupuncturists have known for a long time -
that acupuncture works and its effectiveness goes beyond the placebo
The British Acupuncture Council has more than 100 members practising
throughout Scotland, from Alness to Castle Douglas. The treatment
has been used in China and other parts of the Far East for more than
Henry McQuay, professor of pain relief at Oxford University and a
member of the Bandolier group, which looks at the evidence behind
different medical treatments, said: "The great bulk of the
randomised, controlled trials to date do not provide convincing
evidence of pain relief over placebo.
"Some people do report that acupuncture makes them feel better. But
it is extremely difficult, technically, to study acupuncture and
tease out the placebo effect."
The results of the new study were published in yesterday's issue of
the science journal NeuroImage.