Over the last several years there has been a significant amount of research performed on acupuncture in this country and elsewhere. Even though their work was more concerned with the general mechanisms of pain rather than with acupuncture itself, the experiments helped to explain how acupuncture modifies the transmission of nerve impulses between the spinal cord and the brain.
Early research that relates to acupuncture, was done in the early 1960s by Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall, both neurophysiologists. Their research came to be known as “gate control theory.” This theory helps to account for the clinically recognized importance of the brain in pain perception. Their experiments helped to explain how acupuncture modifies the transmission of nerve impulses between the spinal cord and the brain.
In the gate control theory, the experience of pain depends on a complex interplay of the two major divisions of the nervous system: the central nervous system (spinal cord and brain) and the peripheral nervous system (nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord, including branching nerves in the torso and extremities and the nerves in the lumbar spine region). Upon injury, pain messages originate in the nerve associated with the damaged tissue and flow along the peripheral nerves (nerve gates) to the spinal cord and on up to the brain.
Acupuncture works by stimulating and activating other sensory nerve fibers that are even faster than the “nerve gates” carrying the pain message to the brain, which modifies the transmission of nerve impulses between the spinal cord and the brain. This can help to relieve or even alleviate pain altogether. Acupuncture is also known to stimulate the release of morphine-like substances called “endorphins.” Endorphins are brain hormones produced by the body as a response to stress. Their release during exertion (i.e., running or swimming) accounts for what is referred to as the “high.” Endorphins induce a euphoric sense of well-being, serving as an adaptive and regenerative resource for coping with pain and stress.
Other experiments have shown that acupuncture not only reduces pain, but also directly affects peripheral circulation, rhythm and stroke volume of the heart, blood pressure, levels of circulating immunoglobulins, gastrointestinal peristalis, secretion of hydrochloric acid and the production of red and white blood cells. Acupuncture seems to adjust all the physiological processes of the body, probably through activation of the autonomic nervous system.
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