New research is showing that practicing acupuncture, at a high level, may result in positive changes in the brain relating to neuroplasticity, and interest in this niche is growing.
Most of the time, I use this blog to explore topics that I think will interest people who are curious about trying acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. I’ve written about how acupuncture can ease a wide variety of problems, from sciatica to menopause, and insomnia to cancer, in the hope that sufferers will educate themselves on these powerful treatment modalities and finally find relief. But, though I’m immersed in the rewards of this work every day, I rarely touch on the benefits of acupuncture for its practitioners.
I recently read a fascinating study on this topic in the journal PLOS One. Researchers looked at the brains of licensed, experienced acupuncturists, and found two surprising differences between their brain function and that of non-acupuncturists. These differences relate to neuroplasticity, the incredible ability of our brains to form new neural connections, overcome injuries, and learn new things throughout our lives.
Compared to non-acupuncturists, the acupuncturists in the study demonstrated “exceptional tactile discrimination ability.” These noteworthy tactile-motor skills are likely a result of their expertise in the subtle and dynamic work of acupuncture needling. Practitioners must not only know the function and location of each point and meridian; they must also be skilled in inserting the needles and tailoring treatments to the unique constitution of each patient. As the researchers wrote,
tactile discrimination ability is especially crucial for acupuncturists. Acupuncture aims to elicit unique bodily responses in patients, which is characterized as signified but extremely subtle tightness around the needle and the tactile information is used by acupuncturists to characterize optimal therapeutic effects… However, each round of needle manipulation induces a distinctive bodily response in patients because the patients’ concurrent mental state and physical responses to needling are dynamic. In this sense, it is necessary for acupuncturists to decide whether the expected sensation is achieved by carefully discriminating the tactile stimulus delivered to the manipulating digits through the fine needle.
This study also found a link between practicing acupuncture and a clinically important type of emotional regulation. Sometimes, acupuncturists inflict small amounts of pain on their patients, when it is unavoidable in the course of providing effective treatments. When this happens, most clinicians are susceptible to distress and empathic pain, which can interfere with their ability to provide calm, focused treatments. The acupuncturists did not experience empathic interference, which suggests that, through this delicate and highly skilled work, they had cultivated an ability to connect with their patients without taking on their emotional burdens. This bond acknowledges the mutual authenticity of the practitioner-patient relationship, and solidifies our commitment to join our patients through the healing process.
This is a potentially useful study for a few different reasons. As an acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist, I find it fascinating to see just how much our abilities grow and change in response to the kind of work we do. Acupuncturists’ brains might also provide some clues as to how we can encourage neuroplasticity in people who have lost motor functions due to injuries or illnesses. Studies like this may help us develop better treatments for tactile and motor difficulties in the future. Finally, it shows just how profoundly our daily habits affect our ability to deal with negative emotions. Chinese medicine considers the consistent failure to process bad experiences, whether in our past or present, a major contributor to disease. The more tools and techniques we have to help us cultivate positive inner lives, the better our health will be.