By Dr. Hoon Kim
Tao of Medicine
More and more Americans are getting acupuncture to help treat various health conditions and the pain that is associated with them. In fact, pain is probably the number one reason people seek acupuncture treatments.
But how does this needle-poking medicine work? Before the 20th century, Eastern Asian physicians thought that pain occurred when there was blocked flow in the body. We live by qi (or chi) – a vital life force that keeps moving in and out of the body, protecting and balancing, and so on. The whole qi system is called the acupuncture meridian system, similar to the nervous, lymphatic or blood circulatory system (but not exactly).
Thanks to the advancements in computer technology, brain imaging called fMRI—which can show your brain reaction to acupuncture treatments in real time—has been used to clarify the relationship between acupuncture points and the functions they represent. This new way of determining the effectiveness of acupuncture was pioneered by Zhang-hee Cho, a UC Irvine professor of radiological sciences.
Dr. Cho even showed in a series of imaging experiments published in 1998 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that needling several acupuncture points near the little toe to treat eye problems in a group of 12 volunteers increased activity in the visual cortex, the part of the brain that governs vision.
In a study published in 2001 in the Journal of Neuroscience Letters, inserting a needle into acupuncture point LI4 on the hand (traditionally used to treat pain) was shown to deactivate parts of the brain hypothalamus involved in processing pain.
Today, we have more and more scientific evidence that acupuncture is an effective treatment for pain, and we also better understand which disorders acupuncture can best address.