5 Benefits Of Acupuncture For Brain Health (Plus, What Each Type Does)
Therapeutic acupuncture has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years. In this ancient practice, thin sterilized needles are placed in acupuncture points to restore balance in the body and promote natural healing.
Acupoints, the places in which needles are placed, have connections to various regions of the brain and nervous system, triggering overall systemic responses as well as localized improvements. For this reason, acupuncture has demonstrated effectiveness in the treatment of both acute and chronic neurological diseases and symptoms.
As an integrative neurologist and certified medical acupuncturist, I use acupuncture to treat and prevent a variety of conditions in my patients. Let's dive into how acupuncture affects the brain to treat everything from headaches to brain fog.
5 brain benefits of acupuncture.
Certain acupoints have connections to various regions of the brain, such as the cortex of the brain and the limbic system. Acupuncture can induce changes in the cells of these regions1, thereby improving connection, transmission, and ultimately function. Here are some of the top benefits of acupuncture for neurology patients:
Throughout its history, acupuncture has most commonly been used for pain management2 or anesthesia. Several studies have confirmed its benefit for chronic pain3, including backache, peripheral neuropathy, headache, cancer pain4, trigeminal neuralgia, and pain due to fibromyalgia5. The action of acupuncture in modulating pain pathways has even been demonstrated by brain-imaging studies.
Indeed, more studies of acupuncture have been done in migraine management than any other type of headache. There are several important points on the temporal regions, the back of the head, and the neck that have been found to be effective for the acute treatment of migraine headaches6. Studies suggest acupuncture can modulate the pain pathways7 causing neural changes resulting in migraine pain. Acupuncture may also offer preventive properties8 with regular treatments.
Improved sleep and anxiety
Acupuncture can induce brain activation with improvement in certain neurotransmitter ratios9, contributing to a more relaxed state. This sense of calm can help one sleep10 better at night. While more research is needed, the use of acupuncture for insomnia11 has been promising.
Increased cerebral blood flow
Improved blood flow, in general, has long been thought to be a benefit of acupuncture, hence its use in the treatment of local musculoskeletal pain. Recent studies suggest there is also increased angiogenesis, or the development of new blood vessels, following a stroke12. These new blood vessels in the brain can improve overall cerebral blood flow as well as oxygenation of the brain tissue. Furthermore, acupuncture improves blood flow and activation13 of central pain regions.
Better focus and memory
Acupuncture induces a state of calm and can help with attention, learning, and recall. It allows for a more stable resting-state connectivity14 of brain cell networks and improved vagal response. Animal studies have found that acupuncture improves cognitive function15, learning, and memory16; however, more human studies are needed.
How each type of acupuncture affects the brain.
There are three main types of acupuncture: somatic, scalp, and auricular. Here's how each type confers benefits to the brain.
Somatic acupuncture, or body acupuncture, consists of approximately 1,000 points on the body. Each point represents a place on a meridian that has associated central or peripheral nervous system structures. Studies have shown neuroplasticity1 and anti-apoptotic mechanisms of somatic acupuncture. Apoptosis, or programmed cell death, is associated with many neurological diseases. By preventing apoptosis, acupuncture preserves brain cells17.
Scalp acupuncture, sometimes referred to as head acupuncture, has a deep history, but its current use is more contemporary in that the needles are placed in zones18, rather than points, based on the brain's anatomy and physiology. These zones correspond to regions of the brain19 that integrate functions for movement, sensory perceptions, cognition, emotionality, balance, and hearing.
Auricular acupuncture, or ear acupuncture, refers to the use of various acupuncture points on the external ear: master points, musculoskeletal points, internal organ points, and neuroendocrine points. Some auricular points are used for the treatment of neurological disorders20, including chronic pain, insomnia, depression, traumatic brain injury, anxiety, and constipation. Indeed, the entire homunculus has been mapped out on the ear21. The homunculus is a representation of the parts of the human body that correlate to their specific parts of the brain and is used often in neurology to "localize" symptoms.
Acupuncture is an important modality to be included in any treatment plan for neurological disease. It is not only effective in providing symptomatic relief, but it is noninvasive and without adverse side effects. In the hands of a knowledgeable practitioner, acupuncture can be safely and effectively integrated.
Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D., is a board-certified neurologist practicing integrative pediatric and adult neurology in Seattle. She is the owner and founder of the Center for Healing Neurology and is on the faculty of Seattle Children’s Hospital. Her holistic approach includes full neurological care with the addition of acupuncture, neurofeedback, and herbal and nutritional guidance. She received her M.D. from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and completed her neurology training at the University of Washington in Seattle. In addition to becoming a certified medical acupuncturist, she has also completed the Integrative Medicine Fellowship at the University of Arizona. Her Ph.D. doctoral dissertation studied the effects of environmental toxins on our nation’s water systems.