Acupuncture mechanisms for clinically relevant long-term effects--reconsideration and a hypothesis

Acupunct Med. 2002 Aug;20(2-3):82-99. doi: 10.1136/aim.20.2-3.82.


From the author's direct involvement in clinical research, the conclusion has been drawn that clinically relevant long-term pain relieving effects of acupuncture (>6 months) can be seen in a proportion of patients with nociceptive pain. The mechanisms behind such effects are considered in this paper. From the existing experimental data some important conclusions can be drawn: 1. Much of the animal research only represents short-term hypoalgesia probably induced by the mechanisms behind stress-induced analgesia (SIA) and the activation of diffuse noxious inhibitory control (DNIC). 2. Almost all experimental acupuncture research has been performed with electro-acupuncture (EA) even though therapeutic acupuncture is mostly gentle manual acupuncture (MA). 3. Most of the experimental human acupuncture pain threshold (PT) research shows only fast and very short-term hypoalgesia, and, importantly, PT elevation in humans does not predict the clinical outcome. 4. The effects of acupuncture may be divided into two main components--acupuncture analgesia and therapeutic acupuncture. A hypothesis on the mechanisms of therapeutic acupuncture will include: 1. Peripheral events that might improve tissue healing and give rise to local pain relief through axon reflexes, the release of neuropeptides with trophic effects, dichotomising nerve fibres and local endorphins. 2. Spinal mechanisms, for example, gate-control, long-term depression, propriospinal inhibition and the balance between long-term depression and long-term potentiation. 3. Supraspinal mechanisms through the descending pain inhibitory system, DNIC, the sympathetic nervous system and the HPA-axis. Is oxytocin also involved in the long-term effects? 4. Cortical, psychological, "placebo" mechanisms from counselling, reassurance and anxiety reduction.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acupuncture Analgesia / instrumentation
  • Acupuncture Analgesia / methods*
  • Animals
  • Equipment Design
  • Humans
  • Needles
  • Pain Management*
  • Pain Threshold
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiopathology*
  • Time Factors