New research shows that acupuncture may halt inflammation and “save lives,” illuminating new benefits of the alternative therapy some swear by and others reject as pseudoscience.

Dr. Luis Ulloa, an immunologist at Rutgers University and lead author of the study, said in a press release that the research sheds new light on the effects of acupuncture on inflammation. Aside from benefitting inflammatory disease care, a solid understanding of this connection would also improve treatment strategies for sepsis — an infection that kills about 250,000 Americans annually. “In many cases patients don't die because of the infection — they die because of the inflammatory disorder they develop after the infection,” Ulloa explained.  “So we hoped to study how to control the inflammatory disorder.”

The study, which is published in the journal Nature Medicine, builds on the previous discovery that stimulation of the so-called vagus nerve helps reduce inflammation. To investigate, Ullio and colleagues designed an experiment with electroacupuncture, a type of acupuncture that sends a mild electric current through the needles. This was tested on a mouse model of sepsis.

They found that half of the mice who received the therapy survived for at least a week. For mice that didn’t receive the therapy, the survival rate was zero. The researchers theorize that the therapeutic effect stems from electroacupuncture’s stimulation of a set of molecules called cytokines.

The treatment mechanism also opens doors for drug developers. “From a pharmacological perspective, the effects of selective dopamine agonists mimic the anti-inflammatory effects of electroacupuncture and can provide therapeutic advantages to control inflammation in infectious and inflammatory disorders,” the authors wrote in their conclusion.

But Does It Really Work?

The new study adds to a seemingly endless series of attempts to define acupuncture’s place in modern medicine. The central question is whether the traditional therapy offers any real pain relief. But what exactly do we mean by this?

If we’re asking whether acupuncture has a method of action similar to that of pharmaceutical drugs, the answer is still “maybe.” Sure, studies like Ulloa’s illuminate an array of concrete benefits. But at the same time, others reject the evidence as vacillating and pseudoscientific.

What’s interesting, however, is that it doesn’t really matter whether we’re dealing with a hard, biological mechanism of action or a placebo effect. What matters is whether the therapy actually reduces pain. And while current scientific descriptions of acupuncture’s pain-relieving capacity may come short of swaying the view of skeptics, actual instances of pain relief are well documented.

Why? Because the power of the placebo is, like many physicians will tell you, no joke. A clear example of this is a study published earlier this year in the journal Science Translational Medicine, in which researchers show that a placebo pill can have the same effect as a migraine pill if the two are prescribed and administered under similar circumstances.

"There was no difference between the pharmacology of the drug in reducing pain and the placebo dressed up with a nice word," study author Ted Kaptchuk, an expert on placebo effects at Harvard University, told NPR. Intriguingly, the doctor’s words were shown to modulate the effects of the actual migraine drug as well. "Basically we show that words can actually double the effect of a drug. That's pretty impressive."

It is true that therapies without solid scientific footing should never be recommended as an alternative to established treatment. But it doesn’t make any sense to discredit documented pain relief as “fake” just because the therapy is not properly understood.