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Research shows acupuncture can help Traumatic Brain Injury patients

This blog is the first in a series of posts this month as part of Traumatic Brain Injury Awareness month. We are highlighting various integrative and alternative medicine treatments that can be therapeutic for those suffering from a Traumatic Brain Injury.

Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) refer to an injury to the head and brain following blunt trauma to the head, or acceleration or deceleration forces resulting in head injury symptoms. As with most health issues, TBIs exist on a continuum of severity: concussion, mild TBI, moderate TBI, severe TBI. In our clinic, we most often intersect with this patient population in our treatment of concussions and Mild Traumatic Brain Injuries following car accidents and sports accidents.

In clinical research studies, acupuncture has been shown to be a useful therapy for those suffering symptoms of a TBI.

A systematic review of the literature published by the Cochrane Collaboration in 2013 analyzed data from 4 randomized controlled trials, including 294 participants who had suffered a TBI, ranging from mild to severe. All studies assessed acupuncture plus conventional care/active care versus conventional care/active care alone. The review showed that acupuncture seems to improve symptoms when added to other therapeutic care – all studies showed statistically significant results. However, due to the low quality of the trials, the authors concluded that further research into acupuncture for TBI is needed to draw firm conclusions.

While we do not yet fully understand the mechanisms by which acupuncture works in the body, we do know that it has an ability to affect the Central Nervous System (brain and spinal cord). A recent meta-analysis of fMRI studies (studies that use functional MRI data to see which areas of the brain light up during specific acupuncture treatments) concluded that acupuncture treatments were associated with brain activation mainly in the somatosensory areas, motor areas, basal ganglia, cerebellum, limbic system and higher cognitive areas.  In this way, acupuncture may be a promising treatment for a wide array of pathologies arising out of TBI.

Currently, research studies are underway delving deeper into how acupuncture can be used to help patients who have experienced a TBI. Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Traumatic Brain Injury Program and Samueli Institute are currently exploring the effectiveness of two different types of acupuncture techniques to treat headaches in active military personnel with history of TBI. 


Wong, Virginia, et al. "Acupuncture for acute management and rehabilitation of traumatic brain injury." Cochrane Database Syst Rev 5 (2011).  

Huang W, Pach D, Napadow V, Park K, Long X, et al. (2012) Characterizing Acupuncture Stimuli Using Brain Imaging with fMRI - A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Literature. PLoS ONE 7(4): e32960.  

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