Needle This: Study Hints at How Acupuncture Works to Relieve Stress - March 30, 2013 - By Dr. Mercola
Acupuncture, which has been valued as part of traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years, is now used by millions of Americans each year, often to treat chronic pain. But now researchers have revealed the healing technique may also be effective in treating one of the most widespread ailments facing US adults: chronic stress.
A new animal study showed that rats pre-treated with acupuncture had no spike in stress-associated hormones after being exposed to chronic stress.1 On the contrary, rats that received no treatment or a sham acupuncture treatment had higher levels of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) along with other stress hormones.
It is the constant increase in stress hormones that is associated with many of the health problems linked to chronic stress, such as depression, insomnia and anxiety. In stressed animals that received acupuncture, stress hormone levels were similar to those in the control animals that were not under chronic stress, which suggests the ancient healing modality helps to normalize stress hormone levels.
Interestingly, the acupuncture point used in the study was a point on the stomach, which may work by tapping into the gut-brain connection.
Research is now being carried out to determine if acupuncture is also effective at relieving stress when applied after the fact, as a treatment instead of a preventive strategy.
In a recent analysis published in the Archives of Internal Medicine,2 researchers concluded that acupuncture has a definite effect in reducing chronic pain, such as back pain and headaches – more so than standard pain treatment. Real acupuncture also produced slightly better results than using sham needles, which suggests the benefits of needling are due to more than the placebo effect.
The study revealed a "clear and robust" effect of acupuncture in the treatment of:
- Back pain
- Neck pain
- Shoulder pain
On a scale of 0 to 100, participants who started out with a pain rating of 60 experienced:
- An average 30-point drop (a 50 percent reduction) in response to the real acupuncture treatments (using needles)
- A 25-point drop when receiving sham acupuncture
- A mere 17-point drop when receiving "standard pain care" that did not include acupuncture
With documented use dating back more than 2,500 years, acupuncture is based on the premise that there are more than 2,000 acupuncture points in the human body, which are connected by bioenergetic pathways known as meridians. It is through these pathways that Qi, or energy, flows, and when the pathway is blocked the disruptions can lead to imbalances and chronic disease.
The treatment itself, which involves the insertion of metallic hair-thin needles (typically three to 15) into specific acupuncture points, can be conducted by a physician or a trained acupuncturist. It generally involves little or no discomfort, and patients often report feeling energized or relaxed following the procedure.
Acupuncture is proven to impact a number of chronic health conditions, and it’s thought that it stimulates the central nervous system to release natural chemicals that alter bodily systems, pain and other biological processes. Evidence, in fact, suggests that acupuncture impacts the body on multiple levels, including:3
- Stimulating the conduction of electromagnetic signals, which may release immune system cells or pain-killing chemicals
- Activation of your body’s natural opioid system, which may help reduce pain or induce sleep
- Stimulation of your hypothalamus and pituitary gland, which impact numerous body systems
- Change in the secretion of neurotransmitters and neurohormones, which may positively influence brain chemistry
The World Health Organization (WHO) has conducted an extensive review and analysis of clinical trials related to acupuncture, and reported the procedure has been proven effective for the following diseases:
Adverse reactions to radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy Allergic rhinitis (including hay fever) Biliary colic Depression (including depressive neurosis and depression following stroke) Dysentery, acute bacillary Dysmenorrhoea, primary Epigastralgia, acute (in peptic ulcer, acute and chronic gastritis, and gastrospasm) Facial pain (including craniomandibular disorders) Headache Hypertension, essential Hypotension, primary Induction of labor Knee pain Leukopenia Low back pain Malposition of fetus, correction of Morning sickness Nausea and vomiting Neck pain Pain in dentistry (including dental pain and temporomandibular dysfunction) Periarthritis of shoulder Postoperative pain Renal colic Rheumatoid arthritis Sciatica Sprain Stroke Tennis elbow
Additionally, acupuncture has also shown a therapeutic effect for treating the following diseases and conditions, which range from premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and addictions to whooping cough, although further research is needed:
Abdominal pain (in acute gastroenteritis or due to gastrointestinal spasm)
Acne vulgaris Alcohol dependence and detoxification Bell’s palsy Bronchial asthma Cancer pain Cardiac neurosis Cholecystitis, chronic, with acute exacerbation Cholelithiasis Competition stress syndrome Craniocerebral injury, closed Diabetes mellitus, non-insulin-dependent Earache Epidemic haemorrhagic fever Epistaxis, simple (without generalized or local disease) Eye pain due to subconjunctival injection Female infertility Facial spasm Female urethral syndrome Fibromyalgia and fasciitis Gastrokinetic disturbance Gouty arthritis Hepatitis B virus carrier status Herpes zoster (human (alpha) herpesvirus 3) Hyperlipaemia Hypo-ovarianism Insomnia Labor pain Lactation, deficiency Male sexual dysfunction, non-organic Ménière disease Neuralgia, post-herpetic Neurodermatitis Obesity Opium, cocaine and heroin dependence Osteoarthritis Pain due to endoscopic examination Pain in thromboangiitis obliterans Polycystic ovary syndrome (Stein-Leventhal syndrome) Postextubation in children Postoperative convalescence Premenstrual syndrome Prostatitis, chronic Pruritus Radicular and pseudoradicular pain syndrome Raynaud syndrome, primary Recurrent lower urinary-tract infection Reflex sympathetic dystrophy Retention of urine, traumatic Schizophrenia Sialism, drug-induced Sjögren syndrome Sore throat (including tonsillitis) Spine pain, acute Stiff neck Temporomandibular joint dysfunction Tietze syndrome Tobacco dependence Tourette syndrome Ulcerative colitis, chronic Urolithiasis Vascular dementia Whooping cough (pertussis)
While traditional acupuncture involves the use of needles (acupuncture actually means “to puncture with a needle”), sometimes the stimulation of acupuncture points is done using electricity, lasers or acupressure (the use of pressure to stimulate acupuncture points).
The WHO actually uses the term acupuncture to describe all of these modalities, as each has shown similar benefits. This means that if you like the idea of trying a natural, ancient technique like acupuncture, but don’t like the idea of having needles inserted into your body, there are needle-free alternatives you can try that can offer many of the same benefits.
My favorite is The Emotional Freedom Technique, or EFT, which is the psychological acupressure technique I routinely use in my practice and most highly recommend. EFT is based on the same energy meridians used in traditional acupuncture to treat physical and emotional ailments but without the invasiveness of using needles, nor the inconvenience and cost of having to have a practitioner available to treat you. Instead, simple tapping with the fingertips is used to input kinetic energy onto specific meridians on your head and chest while you think about your specific problem -- whether it is a traumatic event, an addiction, pain, etc. -- and voice positive affirmations.
You can conduct EFT yourself, but if you are not getting the results you would like, or you have a particularly traumatic issue, consider consulting with a skilled EFT professional. Likewise, if you decide to give acupuncture a try, be sure you consult with a qualified practitioner, as your results may vary depending on the practitioner’s skill level.