Nonsense in the media – acupuncture, pain and the brain

I hope that title got your attention. The Telegraph (UK) has just published a story on a brain imaging study of acupuncture for pain relief.  The article is titled:

Acupuncture ‘lessens pain in brain not body’

Scientists discover acupuncture works by making the brain, rather than the body, no longer experience pain, according to new research

I wish this sort of thing wouldn’t happen because the tag line makes absolutely no sense.  My point is the brain doesn’t experience pain, nor does the body, it is the person who experiences it – the brain produces it and it is felt in the body.  This may seem to be not very important but, by implying that pain is an entity that exists somewhere, much like an injury, pathogen or perhaps an alien, confirms and strengthens an inaccurate conceptualisation of pain. Considering that statistics would suggest that 1 in 5 Telegraph readers has some sort of chronic pain problem that impacts on their quality of life, this is an unhelpful situation.  So, my first response is not about acupuncture and cortical processing but about communication. I reckon to talk accurately about pain is part of our brief as clinicians and scientists and….health writers.  For the material, I am going to politely request one of the more astute readers of clinical trials to review the journal article itself, so stay tuned for that.  In the meantime, remind yourselves, your friends and, most importantly, your contacts in the popular media, that

‘pain is an unpleasant conscious experience that emerges from the brain when the sum of all the available information suggests that you need to protect a particular part of your body’


  1. Hey Loz!

    Checked out your website – cool! How long have you had it up??
    Great seeing you in San Diego – about time you got the exposure you needed here in the US – I think it is just the tip of the iceberg, however. You did sooo good! We will look forward to seeing you in Nottingham. -CL

  2. Way to go! After trying this pm to explain pain to a guy with very mechanical understanding, this sort of headline really makes my blood boil.
    We ended up agreeing (after loads of ‘guided discovery’) that his brain is working very hard to protect him, but maybe is a little bit too sensitive, and it might help him to ‘turn the volume down’, so he can experience pain without the distress and other emotions and behaviours.
    Sadly, big words like ‘conscious experience’ and ’emerge’ wouldn’t make sense to him, but pictures and his own examples certainly do.
    Health journalists really need to watch their editors and sub-editors like a hawk so what they say doesn’t get blurred out of recognition.