Background: Acupuncture has been shown to reduce pain, and acupuncture-induced sensation may be important for this analgesia. In addition, cognitive coping strategies can influence sensory perception. However, the role of coping strategy on acupuncture modulation of pain and sensory thresholds, and the association between acupuncture sensation and these modulatory effects, is currently unknown.
Methods: Electroacupuncture (EA) was applied at acupoints ST36 and GB39 of 61 healthy adults. Different coping conditions were experimentally designed to form an active coping strategy group (AC group), who thought they could control EA stimulation intensity, and a passive coping strategy group (PC group), who did not think they had such control. Importantly, neither group was actually able to control EA stimulus intensity. Quantitative sensory testing was performed before and after EA, and consisted of vibration (VDT), mechanical (MDT), warm (WDT), and cold (CDT) detection thresholds, and pressure (PPT), mechanical (MPT), heat (HPT) and cold (CPT) pain thresholds. Autonomic measures (e.g. skin conductance response, SCR) were also acquired to quantify physiological response to EA under different coping conditions. Subjects also reported the intensity of any acupuncture-induced sensations.
Results: Coping strategy was induced with successful blinding in 58% of AC subjects. Compared to PC, AC showed greater SCR to EA. Under AC, EA reduced PPT and CPT. In the AC group, improved pain and sensory thresholds were correlated with acupuncture sensation (VDTchange vs. MI: r=0.58, CDTchange vs. tingling: r=0.53, CPTchange vs. tingling; r=0.55, CPTchange vs. dull; r=0.55). However, in the PC group, improved sensory thresholds were negatively correlated with acupuncture sensation (CDTchange vs. intensity sensitization: r=-0.52, WDTchange vs. fullness: r=-0.57).
Conclusions: Our novel approach was able to successfully induce AC and PC strategies to EA stimulation. The interaction between psychological coping strategy and acupuncture sensation intensity can differentially modulate pain and sensory detection threshold response to EA. In a clinical context, our findings suggest that instructions given to the patient can significantly affect therapeutic outcomes and the relationship between acupuncture intensity and clinical response. Specifically, acupuncture analgesia can be enhanced by matching physical stimulation intensity with psychological coping strategy to acupuncture contexts.
Trial registration: KCT0000905.