Acupuncture and Neuroscience

Bronwyn's picture

When I find research that confirms a Traditional Chinese Medicine principle, I get pretty excited. That happened to me again today, which is always a treat. And this one was such an esoteric Chinese medicine idea, that it’s hard to believe someone thought to study it.


There is a principle in acupuncture that when treating a symptom on one side of the body, you would needle the opposite side. This seems so counterintuitive that most acupuncturists don’t even practice this way. A new study I read earlier today, however, suggests there may be a physiological mechanism behind this theory that is based in neurobiology.


There is a little-known phenomenon called mirror motor activity that occurs during unilateral contractions in the contralateral “resting” limb. If that sounds like baffling magic to you, you’re not alone. I didn’t believe it until I read some of the data. In this study, participants who had a cast on one arm were led through exercises to strengthen the corresponding muscles on the opposite limb. The result was that after removing the cast, there was none of the wasting and weakness in the muscles typical of a casted limb.


So why does this happen?


Study has shown micro-contractions in the dormant limb mediated through the corpus callosum (the fibrous tissue connecting the two hemispheres of the brain together). It’s function is to integrate motor, sensory, and cognitive actions between the cerebral cortex on one side of the brain to the same region on the other side. The clinical applications of this phenomenon are exciting to imagine. We could avoid not only wasting and weakness in casted limbs, there are clinical applications for stroke paralysis as well.


The neuroscience also explains why contralateral needling stimulates muscle fibres on the opposite side of the body. Often with pain, I try to treat locally with needles, cupping and sometimes craniosacral therapy, but also distal points and contralateral points as well. I’ve always done it this way and enjoyed watching the results, but now I have a neuroscience explanation.


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