Acupuncture is widely used for any number of health issues. Chronic pain, of any nature, is one of the most common reasons for visiting an acupuncturist. The effectiveness of acupuncture on pain generally has been shown clinically as well as within many published studies. What hasn’t been looked at as strongly is what potential influencers may block the positive effects of acupuncture.
I get asked fairly often can I do “x”, “y” and/or “z” after acupuncture. For the most part my answer is always – yes. I generally counsel people against strongly vigorous exercise right after acupuncture (not that most people feel like doing that) and to avoid heavy meals, but other than that I’m of the opinion that there is little that can be done to strongly block the effect of acupuncture.
An interesting study came out from researchers at the Eastman Institute of Oral Health within the University of Rochester in New York. They looked at the effects of having caffeine in the body when having acupuncture for pain. The researchers were following up on a previous study where they were trying to deeply explore how acupuncture helps with pain. This initial study drew the following conclusion:
Although acupuncture has been practiced for over 4,000 years, it has been difficult to establish its biological basis. Our findings indicate that adenosine is central to the mechanistic actions of acupuncture. We found that insertion and manual rotation of acupuncture needles triggered a general increase in the extracellular concentration of purines, including the transmitter adenosine (Fig. 1), which is consistent with the observation that tissue damage is associated with an increase in extracellular nucleotides and adenosine36
This nucleoside adenosine will help slow down nervous system activity, promotes sleep, dilates blood vessels, etc. These functions will effectively limit or block pain signals. The stimulant effect of caffeine is primarily the result of caffeine binding to these molecules and in effect blocking their downregulating functions – thus waking you up ( 1 ).
In effect, then, the pain relieving effect of acupuncture is due to increasing adenosine (among other factors). So as these researchers speculated, caffeine blocks this effect. They concluded in their study that:
a trace amount of caffeine can reversibly block the analgesic effects of acupuncture, and controlling caffeine consumption during acupuncture may improve pain management outcomes
Interestingly they even tried injecting caffeine at the acupuncture point to see if it was only systemic caffeine that created the issue or if it was locally blocking the door of the acupuncture point so to speak. It appears, at least from this study, that caffeine closes the door to certain functions of acupuncture with particular relation to pain – although possibly many others.
More studies will have to be done to further explore this – both to see what other functions caffeine may be blocking and to see if other acupuncture techniques can override the binding of adenosine by caffeine. For now, it may be a good idea to have patients not have caffeine before their treatment, particularly if they are coming with chronic pain issues.