December 1, 1999
Web posted at: 1:17 p.m. EST (1817 GMT)

(CNN) — Traditional Western medicine has been skeptical of the benefits of acupuncture, but researchers in New Jersey say that evidence derived from brain imaging shows the treatment helps to relieve pain.

Although it’s considered a relatively new alternative in the West, acupuncture has been practiced in China for over 2,500 years. During the treatment, very fine needles are inserted slightly into the skin at certain prescribed points to relieve pain or other ailments.

Scientists at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) compared brain images of 12 people experiencing pain with images after they received acupuncture. Under brain imaging, the brain “lights up,” or shows activity, in specific areas when a person experiences pain. Following acupuncture, researchers found a marked depletion in that activity.

“We found activity subsided in 60 percent to 70 percent of the entire brain,” said Wen-Ching Liu, Ph.D., a co-author of the study and assistant professor of radiology at UMDNJ.

Released at a conference of the Radiological Society of North America, the study also found the amount of pain depletion can vary from person to person, and some of the people in the study experienced a change in their pain threshold.

“The person (being tested at the time) actually experienced a high tolerance of pain. We gave a pain stimulation and after acupuncture we applied the same degree of pain stimulation. He didn’t feel it,” said Dr. Huey-Jen Lee, chief of neuroradiology at UMDNJ.

Although there are 401 acupoints on the body, this study focused on the Hegu acupoint, or the point on the hand between the thumb and forefinger. Most acupuncture treatments involve stimulating more than one point, but the Hegu acupoint is one that is frequently used, according to Lee.

This research backs up what many Chinese have believed for centuries — acupuncture works to relieve pain. But how or why it works is still unclear.

Historically the Chinese have theorized that the body has an energy force call Qi (chee) running throughout it. The Qi is divided into two opposing forces, the Yin and Yang, which work together when balanced.

The flow of the Qi through a person\\’s body influences all essential life activities, including health. If its flow is interrupted, the Yin and Yang become unbalanced, causing pain or illness.

The Chinese believe the Qi flows through special pathways or meridians. Acupuncture points are specific locations where these pathways come to the surface of the skin. The procedure is said to restore balance to the flow of the Qi.

No matter how it works, acupuncture is continuing to gain acceptance in Western medicine. In 1997, the National Institutes of Health published official guidelines for its use. Researchers are optimistic it will become a useful tool for pain management, especially for those who cannot tolerate medication.

Medical Correspondent Dr. Steve Salvatore contributed to this report.