Whether you’re a skeptic or a true believer in the efficacy of acupuncture, a new study about the ancient practice is worth considering. Researchers described a mechanism that could theoretically result in pain relief from inserting needles into a willing patient’s skin, provided that a specific technique is used (which is to say, not just any so-called acupuncturist can pull it off).
As a matter of full disclosure, I’m skeptical that acupuncture provides anything but a reliable placebo effect. Until now I’ve yet to see credible evidence that something else is happening when the needles go in, aside from conjuring a potent dose of power of suggestion that the pain will subside. The fact that the practice is so ancient adds to the effect. Having said that, the approach these researchers took is intriguing because it relied on a device developed for the purpose, which measures more precisely what’s going on at the skin level around the needle sites (a.k.a. acupoints).
What the research team claims to have found is a significant increase in nitric oxide, which increases blood flow and could result in an analgesic effect. That explains the warmth people say they feel as the needles are inserted, and potentially some level of pain relief.
“Our lab has developed a painless, non-invasive biocapture device that can sample human biomolecules over specific skin regions,” said Sheng-Xing Ma, M.D., Ph.D., the study’s lead researcher, in a press statement. “With this tool, we were able to obtain the first evidence that nitric oxide is released from the human skin surface at a higher level with the proper acupuncture methodology and the use of heat.”
And that’s the key, say the researchers: the effect is only likely to occur if the right method is used. Simply inserting needles and waiting isn’t enough. There’s a subtle insert-and-turn technique. Twisting too quickly or stoutly won’t deliver the benefits. It’s all in the wrist.
This was a small study of 25 men and women, ages 18-60, who agreed to have acupuncture needles inserted while the researchers took readings of their skin using the device. The researchers gently twisted the needles for two minutes until they achieved a sensation known as “de qi” (essentially numbness). They then manipulated the needles in a few different ways for two minutes every five minutes, for a total of 20 minutes. They also applied electrical heat to the needle sites and took additional measurements.
While I don’t find it difficult to believe that the research team found elevated nitric oxide levels, which could conceivably deliver some level of pain relief, there’s still a big question mark as to how that marginal, skin-level relief translates into anything more significant. Perhaps the numbness, if experienced long enough, begins feeling more encompassing, even if it’s really only occurring on the surface.
In any case, this study is at least a solid attempt at uncovering better evidence for why acupuncture is anything beyond an ancient placebo-effect delivery method. Whether it’s convincing is another question.