A 2017 study from researchers at the Indiana University School of Medicine helps to show how electroacupuncture can stimulate tissue repair after an injury and relieve pain through a specific neurological mechanism. Over 40 scientists at research institutions in the United States and South Korea collaborated on the study. Through a series of tests, first on horses and then humans, the final study offers the most comprehensive view yet of how electroacupuncture stimulates the release of stem cells, special cells that develop into a variety of kinds of cells and repair cells.
The first uses of electroacupuncture are attributed to a Chinese doctor, Tang She-cheng, in 1934. In the West, the term is attributed to Dr. Roger la Fuye of France in 1947.
Electroacupuncture uses the same principles as acupuncture, which involves inserting fine, sterile needles at specific points on the body. In electroacupuncture, however, practitioners add a small electrical current to the inserted needles, rather than simply stimulating the points by tapping or gently twisting the needles as they’re inserted.
Through brain MRIs, this research showed electroacupuncture activates the hypothalamus – a part of the brain responsible for controlling the nervous system and subconscious functions like the heart rate. Electrical stimuli from the needles reached the brain of the subjects within nine to 22 minutes, depending on the species. From there, reparative stem cells, called mesenchymal stem cells, were released into the bloodstream within two hours. These cells can differentiate into bone, cartilage and muscle cells, among others, aiding in repairing injured areas of the body. In order to access this response, researchers administered the electroacupuncture at specific acupoints related to the immune system.
The study found increases in a type of collagen that promotes tendon repair, which contributes to research looking to better understand stem cells. The collagen also produces anti-inflammatory cells known to be predictors of faster healing time.