Acupuncture: A Healing Option For Fibromyalgia and More

By Leena Sikand-Cook

Acupuncture is one of the oldest, most commonly used medical procedures in the world. Originating in China more than 4,000 years ago, acupuncture gained the attention of the American public after President Nixon’s trip to China in 1972.

James Reston was a New York Times reporter traveling with Nixon and received acupuncture in China after undergoing an emergency appendectomy. He was so impressed with the procedure’s ability to relieve his postoperative pain that he wrote about his experience upon returning to the United States.

Acupuncture was formally recognized as part of mainstream medicine’s range of healing options in 1997, when the National Institutes of Health issued a statement documenting its safety and efficacy for a range of health conditions. According to NIH, “acupuncture is effective in adult post-operative and chemotherapy nausea and vomiting and in post-operative dental pain. There are other situations such as addiction, stroke rehabilitation, headache, menstrual cramps, tennis elbow, fibromyalgia, myofascial pain, osteoarthritis, low back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome and asthma where acupuncture may be useful as an adjunct treatment or an acceptable alternative or be included in a comprehensive management program.”

So, how can sticking needles into the body help treat so many conditions? A new theory making a connection between acupuncture and endorphins helps explain a part of this mystery.

Experiments with acupuncture have shown that there are higher levels of endorphins in cerebrospinal fluid following acupuncture. Endorphin, abbreviated from “endogenous morphine,” is an endogenous opiate produced naturally in the body.

Endorphins are renowned worldwide as anti-stress hormones that relieve pain naturally. It has been confirmed that endorphins have both neurological and spinous effects. Among the various functions of endorphins are its capabilities to enhance the immune system (by activating NK cells), improve blood circulation, control pain and ward off the effects of aging.

The “runner’s high” experienced after a vigorous workout is because of a surge in the blood-endorphin level. When endorphins are low, people feel more anxious and are more aware of pain. They have an appetite for fat and fatty foods and chocolate because it gives them pleasure and they notice a mood change.

Dr. Bruce Pomeranz, of the University of Toronto, was the first to publish that there was a connection between acupuncture and endorphins. He has spent 20 years researching the acupuncture-endorphin theory. According to his hypothesis, acupuncture stimulates peripheral nerves that send messages to the brain to release endorphins, which then block pain pathways in the brain.

Another study in New Jersey had acupuncture patients monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging. Pain- related brain activity decreased in all patients who received electrical stimulation to acupuncture points.

Acupuncture treatments have lowered blood pressure and in certain instances have effectively treated a disorder called cardiac ischemia, which is caused by inadequate supply of blood to the heart muscle cells. Research done by Dr, John Longhurst at the University of California, Irvine, shows this effect on the cardiovascular system is also because acupuncture activates the endorphin system.

Endorphins released into the body have a relaxing effect, reducing stress and anxiety. They also affect the digestive and hormonal system so acupuncture can help rebalance the organ systems (e.g. metabolism) that are running slow.

Another important role of acupuncture has been in the treatment of substance abuse. It is widely used in detoxification programs in the United State and worldwide. Substances such as morphine and heroin stimulate activity at cell receptors normally stimulated by endorphins. Once the substances are withdrawn, the body must once again begin manufacturing the supplanted endogenous opioids, which is in part responsible for the painful withdrawal symptoms. Acupuncture is said to relieve withdrawal symptoms by triggering the body to produce more endorphins, thus bringing it back to equilibrium.

Increased endorphin production has been shown to affect the release of a gonadotropin-releasing hormone and lower stress hormones responsible for infertility. Patients undergoing IVF therapy are increasingly combining acupuncture treatments with the conventional medical procedures to increase the success rate of the IVF procedure.

Acupuncture has been around for more than 4,000 years originating in China but many other countries such as Japan, Korea, Vietnam and France have adopted this system of medicine and modified it in their own ways to form several different styles of acupuncture. Yet the explanation for how acupuncture works has long been a mystery for most Western doctors.

An advantage of the acupuncture-endorphins theory is that it fits the Western medical model and doctors are buying into it. A 1998 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, for example, showed that medical doctors refer their patients to acupuncturists more than any other “alternative” care provider; the same study also revealed that 51 percent of medical doctors believe acupuncture to be efficacious and of value.

However, endorphins are only a part of the explanation of how acupuncture works. The acupuncture-endorphins theory does not explain how acupuncture can treat nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy and early pregnancy. Additional research is needed to provide definitive answers.

About the author:

Leena Sikand-Cook is a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist in North Carolina and Tennessee. Before opening her new practices in Asheville and Knoxville, she was a professor of Chinese medicine for several years. For more information, go to

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