Acupuncture appears to work in the same way as conventional drugs to combat pain and stress. [Photo: Bigstock]

Acupuncture relieves pain, anxiety in the same way as drugs

30 July, 2015

Natural Health News — New evidence suggests that acupuncture impacts the same biologic pathways as conventional drugs used to combat pain and stress.

Based on an animal model, researchers from Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) say their study, published in the journal Endocrinology, provides the strongest evidence to date on the biololgical mechanism of this ancient Chinese therapy.

“This research, the culmination of a number of studies, demonstrates how acupuncture might work in the human body to reduce stress and pain, and, potentially, depression,” says the study’s senor investigator, Ladan Eshkevari, PhD, CRNA, LAc, a nurse, licensed acupuncturist and associate professor in the department of nursing and the department of pharmacology and physiology at GUMC.

What you need to know

» Using an animal model researcher has shown that acupuncture can mediate the body’s physiological response to stress in much the same way anti-anxiety drugs do

» Electroacupuncture applied to the stomach 36 (ST36) meridian blunted activity in the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, the chronic stress pathway that is also associated with chronic pain, the immune system, mood and emotions.

Similar to anti-anxiety drugs

Eshkevari and her team found that electroacupuncture to a single but powerful acupuncture point – stomach meridian point 36 (St36) – blunts activity in the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, the chronic stress pathway that is also associated with chronic pain, the immune system, mood and emotions.

Tuning HPA down via acupuncture reduced production of stress hormones, secreted by the pathway, that are involved in the chronic stress response.

“Some antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs exert their therapeutic effects on these same mechanisms,” Eshkevari says.

Treatment and prevention

The study compared the effects of electroacupuncture, sham acupuncture and no acupuncture in stressed animals. A fourth group of animals, which was neither stressed nor receiving any treatment, served as a control group.

Is a previous study Eshkevari had already shown that pre-treatment with acupuncture prevents increases in HPA hormones caused by cold-induced painful stress in rats, and that the beneficial effects were long lasting.

The first study mimicked the benefit experienced by individuals who have acupuncture regularly, while the new study looked at the benefit of acupuncture during a stressful event – “which is how acupuncture is most often utilised clinically,” Eshkevari says.

They indeed found that electroacupuncture delivered at St36, minutes after chronic painful cold exposure, was as effective in preventing elevation of stress hormones as it was with pre-treatment with acupuncture.

A need for human data

In the new study, behavioural and protein analyses indicated that acupuncture appears to prevent stress induced release of hormones, as well as decrease depression and anxiety-like behaviour in the rats. “This is the first report linking the effects of electroacupuncture at St36 to chronic stress induced depressive and anxious behaviour in animals,” Eshkevari says.

This work, she says, provides a framework for future human clinical studies on the benefit of acupuncture, both before or during chronic stressful events.