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Pain Management Health Center

MRI Shows That Acupuncture Treatments Reduce Pain

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Dec. 1, 1999 (Chicago) -- Sticking an acupuncture needle into a point in the hand greatly diminishes the amount of brain activity associated with pain impulses, doctors report at the 85th Annual Meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

In a series of experiments, researchers tell WebMD, the proper placement of the fine acupuncture needle in the area between the thumb and forefinger, called the Hegu point, allowed subjects to tolerate greater amounts of pain. And pictures of the brain before and after acupuncture treatment show dramatic decreases in brain activity -- up to 70%.

"It is important for Western medicine to recognize that these acupoints really mean something in regard to pain relief," says Huey-Jen Lee, MD, associate professor of clinical radiology and director of neuroradiology at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark. Acupoints are certain points on the body that, when pressed or punctured, have beneficial effects for certain ailments.

Lee reported on studies in which healthy subjects, men and women between the ages of 25 and 54, received pain stimuli while they were undergoing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The simultaneous procedures allowed doctors to view how and where brain activity occurred without acupuncture and during acupuncture treatments.

When the experiments were repeated after insertion of the acupuncture needle at the commonly used Hegu point, pain levels as seen with the MRI were decreased. Of 12 subjects who underwent the procedure, nine experienced pain relief.

"The data is pretty impressive," Elvira Lang, MD, associate professor of radiology and medicine at Harvard Medical School, Boston, tells WebMD. She says the MRI pictures clearly show a reduction in pain activation. "This shows there really is something going on here." Lee says that because the MRI definitively shows brain activity, it was likely the increased tolerance to pain was real and not just an artifact of treatment, known as a placebo effect.

"The brain actually shows differences," Lee says, "and that is convincing."

Wen-Ching Liu, PhD, a co-author of the study, says, "We found activity subsided in 60-70% of the entire brain."

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