Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese practice that is primarily used to treat chronic pain. However, it can also relieve the anxiety, depression, and insomnia that often affect patients after a traumatic brain injury (TBI). This makes acupuncture a possibly beneficial practice for brain injury survivors.

Acupuncture originated in China over 2,000 years ago. It involves placing thin needles into the skin at certain points in the body. These points, called meridians, are thought to trigger the body’s natural healing responses.

According to traditional Chinese medicine, the body has a natural flow of energy called qi. When qi gets congested, a person can become susceptible to pain, anxiety, and disease. By puncturing the body in the correct spots, acupuncture can clear away the congestion and restore the body’s natural balance. A more modern way of explaining how this works is that acupuncture gently stimulates the nerves and causes an inflammatory response. These responses activate the body’s natural healing process.

Perhaps the most exciting benefit that acupuncture can offer brain injury patients is the ability to regenerate brain cells. One study in 2017 found that acupuncture increased the production of BDNF. BDNF stands for brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a growth factor that acts as a fertilizer for your brain. BDNF triggers your brain to initiate a process known as neurogenesis. Neurogenesis is similar to neuroplasticity, except where neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to rewire itself, neurogenesis actually involves the creation of new brain cells.

This has huge implications for patients after TBI since this would enable them to recover more fully from any brain damage that may have occurred. Studies have also found that acupuncture increases blood flow to the brain, which lets the brain get more of the critical nutrients it needs to heal. It does this by releasing vasodilators into the bloodstream, which causes your blood vessels to relax and expand.

Acupuncture also triggers the release of endorphins in the brain. Endorphins are hormones that activate your body’s opiate receptors, which means they act as natural painkillers. This effect makes acupuncture an alternative treatment for conventional pain management after traumatic brain injury.