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Acupuncture and Pain:
Applying Modern Science to an Ancient Practice

By NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH • NATIONAL CENTER FOR COMPLEMENTARY AND ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE
 

Qi, meridians, yin, yang. How can researchers study acupuncture, a 2,000-year-old form of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) based on foreign concepts that seem impossible to measure, let alone define?

To Richard Nahin, Ph.D., M.P.H., NCCAM's Senior Advisor for Scientific Coordination and Outreach, the answer is obvious: "We don't necessarily have to understand the concepts of qi or meridians to study the safety or efficacy of acupuncture."

Harvard Medical School neuroscientist (and practicing acupuncturist) Vitaly Napadow, Ph.D., L.Ac., agrees. "I firmly believe that everything can be studied with the scientific method. Unfortunately, we don't currently have a 'qi meter.' So, in my research, we don't focus on meridians or qi. We take a neuroscientific approach to study how acupuncture functions through the nervous system."

Using the latest technologies in neuroimaging and genomics, Dr. Napadow and other NCCAM-supported scientists are drawing a scientifically coherent picture of how acupuncture affects the body. They can see physiological effects—changes in the brain's pain centers—with acupuncture. They've observed gene expression and molecular changes in the nervous and immune systems. They hope one day to be able to predict which patients are most likely to benefit from acupuncture.

Scientists aren't ready to claim that acupuncture works for any specific disease—yet. But NCCAM-supported studies have yielded promising evidence that this ancient practice modifies perception of pain and its processing by the brain, and that it may be helpful for pain management. In the years since the 1997 National Institutes of Health consensus statement on acupuncture concluded that more rigorous research was needed, NCCAM has supported a substantial body of research. A number of these studies have tackled the challenge of developing trial designs needed to answer practical clinical questions.