At last the truth about acupuncture (eng)

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At last the truth about acupuncture: it's as good as drugs for treating pain, by Severin Carrell, May 2005

It's as good as drugs for treating pain

by Severin Carrell, May 2005

Critics of the ancient Chinese therapy say it is no better than a  placebo. But a new study using brain-mapping shows it has a similar  effect to standard Western medicines

Sceptics have long claimed that acupuncture is all in the mind. But a ground-breaking new study has found that the ancient Chinese practice is as effective as popular painkillers for treating disabling conditions such as arthritis. A team of scientists from two British universities made the findings after they carried out brain scans on patients while  they underwent the 2,500-year-old treatment. The scans showed  differences in the brain's response to acupuncture needles when compared  with tests using "dummy needles" that did not puncture the skin.

Doctors found that the part of the brain that manages pain and the nervous system responded to acupuncture needles and improved pain relief  by as much as 15 per cent. Dr George Lewith, from the University of Southampton's Complementary Medicine Research Unit, said the improvement  might seem modest, "but it's exactly the same size of effect you would  get from real Prozac versus a placebo or real painkillers for chronic pain". "The evidence we now have is that acupuncture works very well on  pain," he said.

The findings, which will be published today in the scientific journal NeuroImage, have been welcomed by acupuncturists, who have long faced scepticism from scientists that the benefits are derived from the placebo effect. Although some clinical trials have shown an improvement in pain relief, the practice remains controversial.

Other trials, for instance, have found little difference between acupuncture treatments  and placebos.  Persis Tamboly, of the British Acupuncture Council, said:  "We're really thrilled about this research. There will be critics of  this subject until our dying days, but research like this substantiates what we've always maintained - that acupuncture works."The council hopes the findings will help to make acupuncture become  accepted as a National Health Service treatment.

Despite its  controversial status, more than two million acupuncture treatments are  performed each year. Its supporters include Cherie Blair, Kate Winslet  and Joan Collins.  The 14 patients who participated in the study were  put through three tests in random order, while "brain maps" were created  using sophisticated positron emission tomography, or PET, scans at  University College London. In one test, researchers used blunt needles  that pricked the skin, but which the brain registered as the sensation  of touch. Dummy needles, where the tip was pushed back once it touched  the skin, were then used, and in the third test the patients underwent  acupuncture treatment with real needles.

The acupuncture needles had two measurable effects on the patients' brains: as with the dummy needles, the brain released natural opiates in response to the expected effect of the needles. But the scans showed that the real needles had an extra effect and stimulated another part of the brain called the ipsilateral insular. This improved pain relief by  10-15 per cent - similar to the effect of taking conventional analgesic  drugs. The study, though, does not explain how acupuncture treats other problems such as stress or disease.

Dr Lewith said: "Further research is definitely planned. This is a  very interesting area. I have been involved in acupuncture research for  25 years, and I'm now getting a very realistic understanding of the  effects of this mechanism," he said.  At the sharp end:

  • Developed in China about 2,500 years ago, using stone needles at  first and later bronze, gold and silver. The first medical reference was  in The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine, written around  300BC There are about 500 acupuncture points on the body, which can affect  the body's "chi" or energy. A headache can be treated with needles  inserted in the hand or foot
  • Fine needles are inserted into "energy channels" in the body called  "meridians". Needles help natural healing processes or relieve pain
  • Other techniques include the use of massage, smouldering herbs, and  tapping with a rounded probe, as well aslasers and electro-acupuncture
  • UK scientists say they have now proved that acupuncture directly  affects the parts of the brain that control pain, and is as effective as  taking painkillers
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