No pain, no gain: easy to say when the pain is coursing somebody’s else’s body. But what is the healthy wannabe to do when injury or a chronic condition produces debilitating pain? In research on a dozen patients, doctors at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey have used the magnetic resonance (MRI) technology so common among professional sports teams to produce visual evidence that acupuncture really does relieve pain. When acupuncture needles were applied to these patients, the concomitant MRI showed a 60 to 70 percent decline in brain activity associated with the pain.

“We’re using a new technology to understand how this 2,500-year-old technique works,” says Huey-Jen Lee, a co-author of the research made public at the Radiological Society of North America meeting in Chicago, Illinois.

From its ancient origins in Asia, acupuncture has moved into the forefront as a natural remedy. Despite decent results with a small number of athletes – like Kevin Johnson, the retired Phoenix Suns point guard prone to hamstring pulls – the technique has not caught on with the mainstream of sports medicine.

“So many people with pain,” says Huey-Jen Lee, “whether from cancer, headache or a chronic, unexplained condition, rely on medications, such as morphine, which can become addicting. Acupuncture has no side effects, and other studies have shown the pain relief it provides can last for months.”