Acupuncture is a useful, cost-effective treatment for patients who suffer from chronic headaches or migraine, American researchers said on Monday.
In one of the largest randomized studies to assess the effectiveness of the ancient Chinese treatment, scientists found it worked better than just conventional treatments alone.
"People using acupuncture had fewer headaches, less
severe headaches and they used less health resources over the course of the
following year," Dr Andrew Vickers, of
The scientists compared acupuncture plus standard treatment
to normal therapy alone in 401 patients in
Patients who had been assigned acupuncture plus standard treatment received up to 12 treatments over three months.
Initially there was not much difference between the two groups but at the end of the year-long trial the scientist noticed a big change.
Patients receiving acupuncture had 22 fewer days of headaches per year, used 15 percent less medication, made 25 percent fewer visits to their family doctors and took fewer days off sick than the other group.
There were not many side effects and Vickers and his colleagues also found that the treatment was cost effective.
Acupuncture was first used in
German researchers have also said it could help women undergoing fertility treatment to conceive.
Acupuncture's secret: Blood flow to brain USA Today - March 2004
Acupuncture on pain-relief points cuts blood flow to key areas of the brain within seconds, providing the clearest explanation to date for how the ancient technique might relieve pain and treat addictions, a Harvard scientist reports today.
Although researchers still don't fully understand how
acupuncture works, "our findings may connect the dots, showing how a
common pathway in the brain could make acupuncture helpful for a variety of
conditions," says radiologist Bruce Rosen of
Rosen's team used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRIs, on about 20 healthy volunteers before, during and after acupuncture. This type of brain scan shows changes in blood flow and the amount of oxygen in blood.
Researchers applied acupuncture needles to points on the hand linked to pain relief in traditional Chinese medicine. Blood flow decreased in certain areas of the brain within seconds of volunteers reporting a heaviness in their hands, a sign the acupuncture is working correctly, Rosen says. The needle technique is not supposed to hurt if done correctly. When a few subjects reported pain, their scans showed an increase of blood to the same brain areas.
"When there's less blood, the brain isn't working as hard, " Rosen says. "In effect, acupuncture is quieting down key regions of the brain."
The specific brain areas affected are involved in mood, pain and cravings, Rosen says. This could help explain why some studies have found acupuncture helpful in treating depression, eating problems, addictions and pain.
The brain regions involved also are loaded with dopamine, a "reward" chemical that surges in reaction to everything from cocaine to food, beautiful faces and money. The reduced blood flow could lead to dopamine changes that trigger a "cascade" effect, releasing endorphins, the brain's natural pain-relieving and comforting chemicals, Rosen says.
Rosen's study "is a very exciting first step,"
says neurobiologist Richard Hammerschlag of the
Oregon College of Oriental Medicine in
The placebo effect is so powerful it could affect blood flow, says UCLA neurobiologist Christopher Evans, a pain expert. There's even some evidence that placebos can increase brain chemicals, such as endorphins, Hammerschlag says.
Kids' acupuncture gaining interest November 2002 - MSNBC
Acupuncture November 2002 - National Geographic
Acupuncture helps heart patients
Acupuncture can improve the prospects of people with severe heart failure, research has shown.
Researchers found the ancient Chinese practice has the potential to dramatically reduce the pressure on the heart.
This is because it can reduce activity in the sympathetic nervous system, which regulates involuntary movements such as heartbeat and blood pressure.
Acupuncture has been used successfully and with long-range results in improving hypertension, and it may also be beneficial in lowering sympathetic nerve activity.
It also makes it more likely that the heart will develop potentially lethal rhythm patterns.
The lead researcher is Dr Holly Middlekauff, of the University of California Los Angeles School of Medicine.
She said: "There is an ever-increasing interest in alternative medicine. But until now, no one had looked at acupuncture's effect on the very sickest heart failure patients.
"Our research represents a promising first step, but more study is definitely needed."
Dr Middlekauff said advanced heart failure patients often had two or three times more sympathetic nerve activity than normal.
It has been shown that the greater this activity is, the worse the outlook for the patient.
The researchers divided 14 critically ill chronic heart failure patients referred for heart transplantation evaluation into three groups.
One group received acupuncture at traditional acupuncture sites.
The second received "non-acupoint" acupuncture in which needles were placed at sites not traditionally believed to be useful in acupuncture.
Finally, the third group had a "no-needle" simulation of the treatment, in which a needle holder is tapped to the back of their neck, but no needle was inserted.
Blood pressure, heart rate and sympathetic nerve activity were measured in all the patients following a four-minute mental stress test.
This involved, among other things, participants performing math problems in their heads and answering aloud.
Sympathetic nerve activation was significantly reduced in the acupuncture group.
Dr Middlekauff said further study is needed before acupuncture could be recommended as a routine treatment for patients with severe heart failure.
Scientists pinpoint what makes acupuncture work
In studies on cats, Dr. John Longhurst
Endorphins are considered the body's natural opiate system, because morphine, heroin and other opiate drugs affect the same nerve cells. The chemicals in the system regulate nerve cells that relax muscles, dull pain, and reduce panic and anxiety. It also has been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce the workload on the heart.
"Endorphins have been known to help the body prevent heart disease, but we've never seen how they can be affected by acupuncture," Longhurst said, even though the technique has been used by Chinese practitioners for thousands of years. "These findings help us merge what Western medicine has taught us with the tradition of Chinese techniques."
Acupuncture treatments have lowered blood pressure in some patients and in certain instances have effectively treated a disorder called cardiac ischemia, which is caused by an inadequate blood supply to heart muscle cells.
To follow the nervous system routes affected by acupuncture, the researchers first used a chemical called bradykinin to stimulate nerves that increase blood pressure in cats. The substance is produced when the body reacts to infections by producing inflammation, and generally its blood pressure effects are curbed by the endorphin system.
Insertion of acupuncture needles at key pressure points have been found to reduce the ability of bradykinin to raise blood pressure.
Then, the scientists injected a drug called naloxone into the cats' bloodstream, negating the effects of the acupuncture probes. Blood pressure and heart pumping action then increased.
Since naloxone blocks the effects of the endorphin system on the areas of the brain that regulate blood pressure, the researchers concluded that acupuncture worked by stimulating the cats' natural endorphins.
The study is part of a number of collaborations between Chinese and Western doctors to understand the physical mechanisms of techniques that have been used for some 3,000 years.
An expert panel convened by the National Institutes of Health concluded in late 1997 that most Western research on acupuncture is too scant to merit recommending its use in treating many medical problems. But it did report there's substantial evidence that acupuncture can help relieve nausea after surgery and chemotherapy and during pregnancy and also may help alleviate pain and aid stroke rehabilitation.
Longhurst said his team will now try to determine which nerve cells in the endorphin system are being stimulated by acupuncture and whether any other parts of the nervous system may contribute to acupuncture's effects on the cardiovascular system.