As we enter a new year, it is natural to want to look back on the last one. As humans, we have the gift and the hurdle of marking time, so it can feel helpful to recall memories we want to hold on to or look for lessons we can take with us.
To that end, here are three categories in which research into the type, application and efficacy of acupuncture saw significant advancements in 2020, findings that will certainly help guide us as we move forward. In a year that saw so much focus on our health, these findings offer some good news in the fields of pain management without opioids, migraine headaches, and insight into why it is that acupuncture is effective as an anti-inflammatory.
Category 1: Non-opioid Pain Treatment
Because of the safety and non-addictive nature of acupuncture, researchers have been studying its effects as a pain-reliever for at least a decade, hoping to find an alternative to opioid painkillers. In October, researchers from the Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston published the results of their analysis of 16 medical reviews and 11 clinical trials that looked at the efficacy of acupuncture for treating pain related to knee osteoarthritis, back pain and fibromyalgia. They found acupuncture is effective in all three cases. The analysis also corroborates there is evidence that acupuncture stimulates the body’s natural opioid systems to achieve pain reduction, which we have talked about before.
The winner of this year’s research competition through the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture was a submission about acupuncture as an effective non-opioid pain therapy in pediatric sickle cell cases. Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center studied patients in the New York-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Hematology unit over a period of seven years. They found that acupuncture significantly decreased their patient’s pain scores approximately 65 percent of the time without any adverse side effects.
Research published in October by the journal Anesthesiology found acupuncture helped reduce post-operative pain levels. The study looked at a group of 106 veterans getting different surgeries. When compared to the control group of patients, the veterans who received acupuncture before their surgeries experienced less pain afterward, less anxiety and used fewer opioid painkillers to manage their pain after the surgery. This study, while it needs followup research, has important implications for reducing opioid dependency. Six percent of veterans who are given opioids after surgery become dependent on them, and veterans are twice as likely to die from overdoses as civilians, according to the study’s author, Brinda Krish.
Category 2: Migraine Headaches
Highlighting the encouraging results from previous studies on acupuncture for migraine headaches, a 2020 analysis from researchers at Harvard Medical School, Georgetown University, University of Arizona, Creighton University, and Louisiana State University shows acupuncture is a safe way to alleviate or eliminate migraine headaches. Migraines affect over 15 percent of people in the United States, and they can be debilitating. In another study published this year, researchers found they can tailor acupuncture treatments to patients for better success rates by first understanding their specific brain structure through MRI scans. Using the scans and machine learning, specific patterns in patients’ brain gray matter were correlated with better responses to the acupuncture treatments.
Category 3: Anti-inflammatory Effects
Last but not least, another study out of Harvard Medical School showed acupuncture can regulate the body’s response to certain bacterial infections. They found acupuncture improved patients’ survival rates and prevented disease progression of these bacterial infections. They also found their results were even more effective if the patients received acupuncture treatments before they were infected, adding to the body of evidence suggesting acupuncture is an important preventive medicine. The study showed acupuncture regulates systemic inflammation by activating certain neural pathways when specific acupoints were used.
And that’s a wrap. These are just a few of the important studies to come out of the field of acupuncture research this year, and they all have important implications for our health moving forward.