Acupuncture and Pain Relief: The Biochemical and Cytokine Mechanisms

Acupuncture is an ancient form of healing that has been used for thousands of years to relieve pain and treat a wide range of medical conditions. Despite its long history of use, the precise mechanisms by which acupuncture relieves pain are still not completely understood. In recent years, however, scientists have made significant progress in uncovering the biochemical and cytokine pathways involved in acupuncture’s pain-relieving effects.

The Biochemical Mechanisms of Acupuncture

Acupuncture involves the insertion of thin, sterile needles into specific points on the body known as acupuncture points. One of the key ways acupuncture relieves pain is by stimulation of nerve fibers which releases chemicals in the body that modulate pain perception. This in turn helps your body produce feelings of relaxation and well-being.

The stimulation of acupuncture points has been shown to activate the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, leading to the release of pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory hormones such as cortisol. Cortisol has a wide range of effects in the body which include reducing inflammation, improving circulation, and decreasing muscle tension. This is clearly seen in a clinical setting where by stress and anxiety are the number one things people book in for.

The stimulation of acupuncture points has also shown to release endorphins, which are naturally occurring chemicals in the body that act as pain inhibitors. Endorphins bind to opioid receptors in the brain and spinal cord, which reduce the transmission of pain signals. This also helps to improve feelings of relaxation and well-being.

The Cytokine Mechanisms of Acupuncture

Acupuncture has also been shown to modulate the release of cytokines that play a role in inflammation and pain. One of the key cytokines involved is tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α), which is a pro-inflammatory cytokine that is involved in the development of pain and inflammation. Acupuncture has been shown to decrease TNF-α levels, which can help to reduce inflammation and pain.

Another cytokine that is involved in the process is interleukin-1 beta (IL-1β), which is another pro-inflammatory cytokine that plays a role in the development of pain and inflammation. Acupuncture has been shown to reduce the release of IL-1β, which can also help to alleviate pain and reduce inflammation.

In addition to TNF-α and IL-1β, other cytokines that may be involved in the process of acupuncture’s modulation of inflammation and pain include interleukin-6 (IL-6), interleukin-10 (IL-10), and transforming growth factor beta (TGF-β). Overall, the modulation of cytokine levels is thought to be one of the key mechanisms by which acupuncture produces its pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory effects.

By reducing inflammation, acupuncture can often alleviate pain and promote healing in the affected area like your lower back, shoulder, neck… even headaches!

The Limitations of Current Research

Whilst the research is growing on Acupuncture, much remains to be understood about the precise mechanisms involved in pain reduction. The majority of studies conducted to date have been small, and the results have been inconsistent, making it difficult to draw definitive conclusions.

Despite the limitations, there is no denying the effectiveness of acupuncture in relieving pain and reducing inflammation. Whether through the release of pain-relieving hormones, the regulation of cytokine levels, or some other yet-to-be-discovered mechanism, acupuncture has been shown time and time again in our clinic to be a safe and effective form of pain treatment. Whether through the release of endorphins, the regulation of cytokine levels, or the stimulation of other physiological processes, acupuncture offers a natural, drug-free approach to pain management that is both safe and effective.

It is important to remember that acupuncture should also be used in conjunction with other forms of treatment such as chiropractic, massage therapy, physiotherapy, naturopathy, diet and lifestyle changes.

If you are experiencing pain and are considering acupuncture to support you, Dr Dennis Jang is currently taking bookings.

To find out more, you can call us on 02 4323 9100, or book online!


Peng, Y. H., Zhang, H. Q., Han, F., & Cheng, J. T. (2017). Cortisol and Interleukin-10 Secretions in Healthy Individuals Following Acupuncture Treatment. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 2017, 6893083.

Sun, Y., & Li, J. (2018). Endorphins and Acupuncture. Frontiers in neurology, 9, 724.

Liu, J. P., Chen, L., Yang, X. Y., Li, X., Wang, H., Li, H., … & Liu, J. H. (2017). Acupuncture regulates cytokine secretion in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Journal of translational medicine, 15(1), 11.

Wang, X., & Cai, Y. (2015). Cytokine modulation in acupuncture therapy. World Journal of Acupuncture-Moxibustion, 25(2), 21-28.

What to expect from an Acupuncture Treatment with Dennis

Assessment of Your Health Concerns

Dr. Dennis will conduct a thorough and empathetic history-taking to uncover the cause and details of the issue.