During the ongoing opioid epidemic, major medical organizations continue to turn to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatments like acupuncture as a solution. In addition to the American College of Physicians and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommending acupuncture as a form of pain treatment, the National Institutes of Health, among other organizations, have increased new funding for research unlike ever before.
Over the last few years, this research has revealed new and exciting discoveries about acupuncture and why it is so effective. Here are a few of the studies that continue to raise awareness about the benefits of acupuncture.
How acupuncture works on a molecular level
A team of researchers led by neuroscientists at Harvard Medical School may have unraveled the mystery of how acupuncture works on a molecular level. In a study conducted in mice and published on Oct. 13 in Nature, the team identified a subset of neurons that must be present for acupuncture to trigger an anti-inflammatory response.
In the study, the team used light-based stimulation similar to electroacupuncture to directly target the sensory neurons in mice, activating the vagal-adrenal axis, a signaling pathway that is believed to suppress systemic inflammation. In another experiment, the researchers created mice that were missing these sensory neurons and found that electroacupuncture did not activate the vagal-adrenal axis.
Lead investigator Qiufu Ma, HMS professor of neurobiology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, called the study the first concrete, neuroanatomic explanation for acupoint selectivity and specificity.
Zhanxiang Wang, MD (China), PhD, LAc, NUHS professor of clinical sciences, agrees. He said this study verifies what traditional Chinese medicine practitioners have long known. “As a result, more people could be open to acupuncture, especially within mainstream medicine,” he said.
Why acupuncture is so effective for many chronic conditions
In addition to showing how acupuncture works on molecular level, the Harvard study also demonstrates how acupuncture specifically targets severe, systemic inflammation. More importantly, it highlights one of the reasons why acupuncture may be so effective at improving pain and chronic conditions, which often involve inflammation symptoms.
Triggered by conditions like COVID-19 and cancer, inflammation or an overactive immune response is a major medical issue with a very high fatality rate of 15% to 30%, according to the researchers. Even after the first trigger is gone, chronic inflammation can also last months or years and develop into diseases like asthma, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, arthritis and other joint diseases, allergies, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, psoriasis, cancer, IBS/IBD, etc., according to Dr. Wang.
“Inflammation is a modern word that does not exist in Traditional Chinese Medicine,” Dr. Wang said. “However, today’s practitioners recognize that "inflammation" related symptoms and signs do exist and just how effective acupuncture is for it.”
Because drugs that treat this kind of inflammation are few, acupuncture may one day become a first line form of treatment, especially as Harvard researchers continue studying this subject into the future.
Why acupuncture could be a promising treatment for asthma
A 2019 study recently revealed that conventional medicine, such as inhaled steroids that have been used for years to treat bronchial asthma, may not be effective and could in fact do more damage than good. As researchers look for alternative treatments, the frequency of randomized controlled trials (RCT) of acupuncture for asthma are on the rise, according to a 2020 paper published in the journal Medicine.
According to the paper, previous clinical trials have shown that acupuncture can relieve symptoms and improve the quality of life for patients. While more research may be needed, acupuncture may be among the most promising treatments for asthma. An added benefit is that acupuncture has few side effects.
With about 300 million asthma patients worldwide, today’s acupuncturist may start seeing more and more patients with this condition.
How acupuncture reduces health care costs
Because insurance companies do not universally cover acupuncture, many assume that acupuncture treatment is costly. However, a 2020 study found that when those who experience chronic low back pain utilize acupuncture along with other forms of complementary and alternative medicine, health care expenditures were significantly lower.
Among the reasons for the reduced costs, the study found that adult CAM users had significantly lower prescription medications as well as outpatient expenses. In coming years, increased awareness about these reduced costs could help lead to more referrals from medical professionals and more patients in general. It could also lead to more insurance coverage. In fact, a 2022 study found that insurance coverage is already on the rise from 41.1% in 2010-2011 to 50.2% in 2018-2019. Acupuncture use also increased from 0.4% to nearly 0.8% among the study’s respondents. These statistics are just a few of the many promising trends that are likely to continue in the future.
How acupuncture could be used on the battlefield
Like many organizations within the medical field, the military has been looking for alternatives to opioid use for pain. With the Veteran Health Association already allowing acupuncture care to be covered by the veterans’ medical benefits package, the U.S. military might one day offer acupuncture on the battlefield, too.
According to a 2021 study, battlefield acupuncture is a potentially effective, immediate, but short-term nonpharmacological pain management tool that can be used in adjunct with other pain therapies.
“Given its effectiveness in providing immediate, short-term pain relief, from the perspective of both providers and patients, battlefield acupuncture is one potentially important tool in the toolkit to address patients’ pain.” the study states.
The study also concludes that battlefield acupuncture could encourage some patients to engage in other, more long-term approaches, such as yoga and tai chi. This will ultimately move toward more of a self-managed model to address chronic pain.
These exciting new research discoveries hold a lot of promise for the future of acupuncture. While mainstream medical professionals first looked to acupuncture as a treatment for pain, the latest research is showing that it can successfully treat so much more.
As the world continues to look toward acupuncture for treatment solutions, a variety of health care facilities like hospital groups and Veteran clinics are already hiring acupuncturists. Not only will these studies help attract more patients, students and new graduates can expect job opportunities to grow, too.