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Nonsense in the media – acupuncture, pain and the brain



The 2024 Global Year will examine what is known about sex and gender differences in pain perception and modulation and address sex-and gender-related disparities in both the research and treatment of pain.

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I hope that title got your attention. The Telegraph (UK) has just published a story on a brain imaging study of acupuncture for pain relief.  The article is titled:

Acupuncture ‘lessens pain in brain not body’

Scientists discover acupuncture works by making the brain, rather than the body, no longer experience pain, according to new research

I wish this sort of thing wouldn’t happen because the tag line makes absolutely no sense.  My point is the brain doesn’t experience pain, nor does the body, it is the person who experiences it – the brain produces it and it is felt in the body.  This may seem to be not very important but, by implying that pain is an entity that exists somewhere, much like an injury, pathogen or perhaps an alien, confirms and strengthens an inaccurate conceptualisation of pain. Considering that statistics would suggest that 1 in 5 Telegraph readers has some sort of chronic pain problem that impacts on their quality of life, this is an unhelpful situation.  So, my first response is not about acupuncture and cortical processing but about communication. I reckon to talk accurately about pain is part of our brief as clinicians and scientists and….health writers.  For the material, I am going to politely request one of the more astute readers of clinical trials to review the journal article itself, so stay tuned for that.  In the meantime, remind yourselves, your friends and, most importantly, your contacts in the popular media, that

‘pain is an unpleasant conscious experience that emerges from the brain when the sum of all the available information suggests that you need to protect a particular part of your body’

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