Updated: Aug 27, 2019
The earliest records of using acupuncture for pain relief are about 8 thousand years old. Roughly the same is true for the analgesic use of medicinal cannabis (give or take a few years). However, what is truly a new and exciting insight in medicine is that these two ancient approaches to mitigating pain go about it in the same way.
In the context of pain relief acupuncture and cannabis can be thought of as two sides of the same coin. According to a relatively recent study from Shanghai, China, (conducted on rodents) acupuncture works so well in reducing pain because it activates the body's own endocannabinoid system (ECS).
The ECS has only been discovered relatively recently (1990’s) but is on a fast track to become a significant and practical factor in the future of individualized, integrative medicine. It is an ancient biological regulatory mechanism that evolved in all humans, in truth in all mammals, and even some non-mammalian species, over a period of millions of years.
The ECS is a system comprised of locks (receptors) and matching keys (cannabinoids). Depending on the home tissue of the receptors that are spread throughout the human body each provide numerous functions necessary for survival, health, and the well-being of body, mind, and spirit.
There are only two kinds of keys that can open these locks and activate this ancient and natural system of achieving homeostasis or giving the body what it needs at any given moment to facilitate health, healing, well-being and resilience.
One group of keys are made by the human body itself. These keys are called endocannabinoids and include molecules such as anandamide (named after the Sanscrit word for bliss).
The other group of keys (cannabinoids) are produced by the plant cannabis and include molecules such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC is the most famous, most studied, and most commonly used key to unlock analgesic benefits.
Anandamide and THC are nearly identical and functionally comparable, both bind to the same locks, both affect the mind and the body, and both are involved in mitigating pain.
Numerous studies have examined different hypothesis attempting to determine a better understanding of how exactly the ECS achieves pain relief.
In this study however, scientists discovered that pain relief was achieved by the activation, or more accurately the co-activation of 3 receptors types: endocannabinoid (CB1) and dopamine receptors (D1/D2).
More specifically activation of these receptors was initiated by the release of the neurotransmitters GABA and glutamate. Release occurred at the level of synapses (connection between nerve cells) especially in the part of the brain called the striatum (richly endowed with CB1 receptors) that is involved in the process of analgesia.
This new evidence provides a basis for a better understanding of how electro-acupuncture works to relief pain. It does so by stimulating the bodies ancient ECS.
Shou Y, Yang Y, Xu MS, Zhao YQ, Ge LB, Zhang BM. Electroacupuncture inhibition of hyperalgesia in rats with adjuvant arthritis: involvement of cannabinoid receptor 1 and dopamine receptor subtypes in striatum. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013;2013:393460.