TUESDAY, Nov. 30 (HealthDay News) -- Acupuncture alters the way that the brain perceives and processes pain, a finding that suggests the traditional Chinese treatment can effectively relieve pain, according to a new study.

German researchers used functional MRI scans to measure brain activity in 18 people who received painful electrical currents from a device fitted to their left ankle. The researchers then placed acupuncture needles on the participants' right side -- including between the toes, below the knee and near the thumb -- and again inflicted pain in the left ankle.

Without acupuncture, there was major activation of pain-processing areas of the brain. Activation in these areas was significantly reduced when the volunteers received acupuncture.

The researchers also found that acupuncture reduced activation in areas of the brain that control expectations of pain.

The study was to be presented Tuesday at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, in Chicago.

"Acupuncture is supposed to act through at least two mechanisms, nonspecific expectancy-based effects and specific modulation of the incoming pain signal," lead author Dr. Nina Theysohn of University Hospital in Essen, Germany, said in a news release from the society. "Our findings support that both these nonspecific and specific mechanisms exist, suggesting that acupuncture can help relieve pain."

More information

The U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has more about acupuncture.