Traditional Chinese Acupuncture points on the back

Traditional Chinese Acupuncture points on the back

I’ve been doing quite a lot of acupuncture on lower back pain patients over the last few months with some really exciting results so I thought I’d better do a post about acupuncture for lower back pain.

Despite a mere 5000 year history of success acupuncture continues to be a hotly debated therapy in the medical community. So saying, as more scientific research is done into its effects it is slowly winning acceptance and indeed in some countries it has made the leap to being no longer considered ‘alternative’.

Firstly- why is acupuncture still debated if it’s proven to be effective? One of the issues acupuncture has is that in order to be scientifically considered ‘proven’ a medical therapy must be given in a standardised dose and compared against a placebo (inert) treatment in a way that the patient doesn’t know whether they’re getting the active treatment or not. This is great way to test drugs because you can easily make up some sugar pills and compare them to the real thing to see how much of the benefit is due to the medication and what is ‘just placebo’. Read More

Girl looking in mirror

Mirror mirror on the wall

Have you ever wondered why yawning is contagious? Or why spending time with some people leaves you feeling energised and spending time with others leaves you feeling drained? The answer to these questions and many more lie in some fascinating brain cells called mirror neurons.

Mirror neurons were discovered by accident in an Italian laboratory where they were investigating monkeys. They had a sensor implanted in part of the monkey’s brain which was involved in him lifting his hand to his mouth. This meant that every time the monkey performed this action (ie. when eating a peanut) a computer would register the brain activity and a light would come on. This was all running smoothly when (as legend has it) one of the research assistants entered the lab eating an ice-cream and suddenly the computer started giving strange results. Amazingly, they discovered that every time the researcher lifted his hand to his mouth to lick the ice-cream the monkeys brain would activate in exactly the same way that it would if the monkey had done the same action. As luck would have it the researchers had implanted the sensor in what they went on to call a mirror neuron. Since then there has been a lot more research into these mirror neurons and they’ve shed a lot of light on questions that have puzzled brain scientists for a long time. Read More

Image of the Hippocampus

The Hippocampus

The Hippocampus is a part of the emotional processing centre of the brain (the Limbic system). Hippocampus literally means ‘Sea Horse’ in classical Greek and it is so called because it looks quite uncannily like a sea horse. It has widely spread links to lots of other networks which make it a a really important centre for storing and retrieving conscious memories. The Hippocampus allows you to remember all those facts and figures you learnt at school, where you keep the spare batteries, what you ate for dinner, and where you spent your last holiday.

The Hippocampus and the Amygdala are closely connected. Because the Hippocampus acts like a librarian storing and organising information and the Amygdala acts to add emotional ‘tone’ to experiences the two brain centres co-ordinate to allow us to store and retrieve emotionally-based memories.

One of the fascinating studies that really illustrates how amazingly changeable the brain is was done on London taxi drivers who have to memorise an enormous amount of spatial information in order to be able to navigate successfully around such a vast city. Brain scans showed that these taxi drivers have significantly larger Hippocampi than is normal and also that the size of the Hippocampi increased the longer that they had been in the job.

The hippocampus is particularly vulnerable to the effects of stress. Cortisol, one of the bodies main stress hormones has been shown to be very damaging to cells in the Hippocampus leading to them shrinking, forming fewer connections and even killing off some of the neurons. This is why people who are under lots of stress frequently complain of having a “mind like a sieve”.  Such cortisol induced damage to the hippocampus has also been found in patients who develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Read More

This is a video that I think everyone should watch! It addresses the issue of ‘publication bias’ in medicine which (believe it or not) is an issue that directly affects YOU! This is well worth 13 minutes of your day.

Key points:

- There is no obligation on researchers to publish every piece of research that they conduct, so if they get ‘undesirable’ results they don’t have to let anyone know about them.

- Medical journals likewise are far more likely to publish ‘positive’ studies than ‘negative’ ones.

- A lot of research these days is ‘owned’ by pharmaceutical companies who have serious vested interests in what information your Doctor has access to.

- Half of all medical research that is conducted never gets published.

But don’t take my word for it- watch it yourself:


I have to say as well that this is an issue that affects all areas of medicine not just ‘pharmaceutical medicine’.

In a study of research done into acupuncture it was found that different countries produced markedly different rates of positive trials. 75% of acupuncture trials published in England were positive whereas 99% of those published in China were positive.  Now why would that be? Maybe the Chinese journals are biased towards acupuncture? Maybe the English journals are biased against acupuncture? Maybe the Chinese are just more responsive to acupuncture? The issue is that we just don’t know- and until the laws around publication of medical research are tightened up sufficiently this is going to be a problem which continues to affect us all.


The Amygdala

The amygdala is a really important part of your brain’s emotional processing centre (Limbic system). You have one buried deep in each hemisphere of your brain and they are about the size and shape of an almond (Amygdalon- is Latin for almond). It is often thought of as a ‘threat detector’ or a panic button in the brain although its role is really much broader than that. Like all parts of your brain the amygdala is always on. It is always scanning what’s going on in and around you and picking up the ‘emotional tone’ of every event but it is particularly sensitive to any possible threats. Scientists have investigated the amygdala by putting people in MRI scanners and looking at their brain activity while they are shown different faces. These studies have shown that the amygdala is responsive to both happy and sad faces but it is especially primed to activate in response to fearful or potentially threatening imputs.

Activation of the amygdala does all the things that you would want your body to do when threatened. You become very alert, your heart rate and breathing rate speed up, your muscles tense up ready to fly or flee, adrenaline floods into your blood stream which inhibits non-urgent body systems (such as digestion, immunity and reproduction) and ramps up your body’s emergency systems. Read More