I'll admit it. The seeming lack of scientific evidence that acupuncture actually relieves pain has left me skeptical since I first learned of the ancient Chinese technique. And to this day, it's possible that much of the relief patients feel during and after an acupuncture treatment results from the placebo effect.
But new research published this week in the journal Nature Neuroscience finds that the natural compound adenosine, known for its anti-inflammatory properties, floods tissue that is punctured or aggravated, and may be the secret ingredient in acupuncture.
"Acupuncture has been a mainstay of medical treatment in certain parts of the world for 4,000 years, but because it has not been understood completely, many people have remained skeptical," says Maiken Nedergaard, co-director of the University of Rochester's Center for Translational Neuromedicine, where the research was conducted. "In this work, we provide information about one physical mechanism through which acupuncture reduces pain in the body."
Her team, which presents its work this week at Purines 2010 in Barcelona, inserted and rotated needles into the tender paws of mice and found that the biochemical blockade of adenosine soothed the mice about as much as giving them drugs that boost adenosine levels.
More specifically, both during and immediately following an acupuncture treatment, the level of adenosine in the tissue near the needles was 24 times greater than before the treatment. So acupuncture may relieve pain by simply tricking bodies into thinking there's been minor tissue trauma.
And yet another pin in the proverbial coffin for skeptics like myself: The researchers even found that in "adenosine receptor knock-out mice" not equipped with the adenosine receptor, acupuncture had no effect.
So what do revelations about a 4,000-year-old technique have to do with modern technology? The better we understand exactly how needles relieve pain, the more likely we are to invent modern acupuncture kits that are affordable, portable, and safe.