Why acupuncture aids spinal recovery
11:18 26 April 2010 by Wendy Zukerman
Rats with damaged spines can walk again thanks to acupuncture. But it's not due to improvements in their energy flow or "chi". Instead, the ancient treatment seems to stop nerve cell death by reducing inflammation.
Acupuncture's scientific credentials are growing. Trials show that it improves sensory and motor functions in people with spinal cord injuries.
To find out why, Doo Choi and his colleagues at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, South Korea, damaged the spines of 75 rats. One-third were given acupuncture in two locations: Shuigou – between their snout and mouth, and Yanglingquan – in the upper hind leg. Others received no treatment or "simulated acupuncture".
After 35 days, the acupuncture group were able to stand at a steeper incline than the others and walk better. Staining their paws with ink revealed that their forelimb-hindlimb coordination was fairly consistent and that there was very little toe dragging, whereas the control groups still dragged their feet.
The rats in the acupuncture group also had less nerve cell death and lower levels of proteins known to induce inflammation after spinal cord injury and make neural damage worse.
One explanation is that sharp needles prompt a stress response that dampens down inflammation. In humans, the inflammation that follows spinal cord injury is known to be responsible for nerve cell death.
Zhen Zheng of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia says the results are "very encouraging". But she says we don't yet know if the results will apply to humans.
For example, the acupuncture treatment on the rats was given almost immediately after injury, but most patients don't seek acupuncture until at least three months after damage to their spines.
Journal reference: Neurobiology of Disease, DOI: 10.1016/j.nbd.2010.04.003