In a study, Mass General researchers found that acupuncture treatments reduce pain for patients with carpal tunnel syndrome.

A new study by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital shows that acupuncture treatments not only reduce patient-reported experiences of pain in carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), but this ancient therapy also makes a measurable difference in how the brain processes nerve signals that are compromised by the painful repetitive motion disorder.

Vitaly Napadow, PhD
Vitaly Napadow, PhD

CTS is one of the few chronic pain disorders associated with objective measurable changes. Because CTS is a result of compression of the median nerve in the arm, impulses between the wrist and the forearm – such as motor function and sensation – are slowed down. Additionally, studies have shown that the brain – particularly the part that receives touch-related signals – is remapped in CTS. Specifically, brain cells that usually respond to touch signals from individual fingers start to respond to signals from multiple fingers.

Study participants received either electro-acupuncture at the affected hand, at the ankle opposite the affected hand or sham electro-acupuncture with placebo needles near the affected hand. Results were measured before and after eight weeks of therapy sessions (16 sessions total) using a questionnaire and MRI scans.

Real Acupuncture Impact

Researchers found that the 80 participants across all three groups reported improvements in their pain and numbness after the treatments. However, only participants who received real acupuncture – either at the affected hand or at the ankle – saw improved nerve impulses in the wrist. Those that received real acupuncture at the affected hand also experienced brain remapping linked to long-term improvement in CTS symptoms. No physiologic improvements resulted from sham acupuncture.

Researchers will now plan further research to better understand how acupuncture works to relieve pain . . .

Researchers will now plan further research to better understand how acupuncture works to relieve pain in an effort to help improve non-pharmacological care options for chronic pain patients.

Vitaly Napadow, PhD, director of the MGH Center for Integrative Pain Neuroimaging at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, is senior author of this study.

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