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Acupuncture works in less-mysterious ways
Q. How does acupuncture work?

A. Acupuncture has been used for thousands of years in China to treat a wide variety of conditions.

It works by stimulating the flow of qi (pronounced chee) with very small, sterile needles inserted into specific points on the body. Qi is described as the body’s life force, or vital energy, and is said to travel on pathways called meridians.

From a Western point of view, acupuncture is becoming less mysterious, and it is widely accepted that it can have profound effects.

According to the National Institutes of Health, a number of studies have demonstrated that acupuncture can cause multiple biological responses in both humans and animals. Because acupuncture has been used with dramatic success in place of anesthesia and to treat conditions associated with pain, it is thought to stimulate the release of pain-relieving compounds such as endorphins and opioids.

Interestingly, when patients are given a drug to block the release of opioids, the pain-relieving benefits of acupuncture are lost. The NIH states that acupuncture may also work by activating the hypothalamus and pituitary glands (both in the brain), resulting in a broad spectrum of effects on the body.

Compelling information on how acupuncture might work has emerged from research by Dr. Zang-Hee Cho, a medical physicist and professor at the University of California. Cho became interested in acupuncture after sustaining a back injury and receiving acupuncture treatment for his pain. When he experienced unexpected relief, his curiosity was prompted and he began conducting experiments.

In one experiment, he discovered that after acupuncture needles were placed in specific points on test subjects, magnetic resonance imaging scans showed corresponding changes in their brain activity. He also found that by inserting acupuncture needles into a certain point on a toe — a point associated with vision in traditional Chinese medicine — the portion of the brain which controls vision was activated.

Western science may not yet be able to fully map out the exact mechanisms by which acupuncture affects physiology, but the gap in our knowledge is closing.

Cho notes that acupuncture imaging studies are "opening a new door for neuroscience." And studies like his also are opening many minds about the world’s most ancient medical tradition.

Article was originally printed in the Honolulu Advertiser, honoluluadvertiser.com.

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