60-Second Science

Mechanism Points to Acupuncture Pain Relief

In mice, inserting and rotating acupuncture needles releases adenosine, which blocks pain signals. Karen Hopkin reports

Research on acupuncture just got a shot in the arm. Well, a needle near the knee, actually. Because a study in the journal Nature Neuroscience [Maiken Nedergaard et al,] has uncovered a mechanism that could explain how this traditional healing process can help reduce pain.

Acupuncture has long been tried against all sorts of ailments, from aches and pains to infertility. And though the Western world treats the procedure with some skepticism, it’s actually endorsed by the World Health Organization for a couple dozen different conditions. But how can sticking needles in your skin be good for you?

Scientists tried the technique on mice that had a pain in the paw, inserting and rotating the needles in the mouse version of one of the most effective acupoints in Chinese medicine. And they found that the tissues around the treated acupoint get flooded with adenosine, a chemical that provides relief by preventing pain signals from reaching the brain.

This biochemical blockade reduced the animals’ discomfort, as did treating them with drugs that boost the amount of adenosine in the tissue. The scientists say the pain relief stems from the body’s natural response to minor tissue injury. So acupuncture’s analgesic effect may have finally been pinned down.

—Karen Hopkin

[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast]

Scientific American is part of the Nature Publishing Group


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