Acupuncture for rheumatoid arthritis pain


This ancient form of Chinese medicine can work in tandem with your medications to reduce inflammation and help you move more easily.

If you live With rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease, you probably already know that your body has mistaken your own healthy cells for harmful invaders. You probably know that your immune system launched an attack on your body that left your joints sore, stiff and inflamed. And of course, you know you’re hurting. The question is, how do you relieve this pain?

In Western medicine, the reference treatment for calming an overactive immune system and relieving joint pain is medication, mainly nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARD). These drugs are effective, but it may take several tries for you and your doctor to get the right drug and dose, and you may experience side effects along the way.

Meanwhile, many people with RA also seek natural treatments like massage therapy, herbal supplements, and acupuncture to complement their medications. The evidence suggests that using acupuncture with DMARDs for RA could improve pain control, inflammation, and quality of life. If you haven’t tried acupuncture for your rheumatoid arthritis, you might be wondering exactly how it works. Let’s take a closer look at what the science says.

How does acupuncture work?

Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine that has been around for quite some time…3,000 years to be exact. Unlike Western medicine, which aims to treat a specific disease, the goal of acupuncture is to restore “balance” to the whole body. The idea, according to the philosophy of Chinese medicine, is that the energy or life force of the body, called qi (pronounced “chi”), circulates in channels called meridians that run through organs and tissues. When qi is out of balance, disease and pain result.

In Chinese medicine, rheumatoid arthritis is considered a “bi” disease, according to a report published in the Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine. Bi refers to a blockage or lack of blood flow along the meridians that involve bones, joints, and muscles. The theory is that blockages – caused by exposure to things like heat, cold, wind or humidity – lead to pain, swelling, stiffness and other RA symptoms.

To remedy these blockages, acupuncturists place very fine stainless steel needles at points along the meridians that correspond to a buildup of energy. “We needle those points to manipulate the circulation along those pathways,” says Molly Hutto, Doctor of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine (DACM) and owner of Annapolis Family Acupuncture in Arnold, MD, adding, “It’s much more complex than that, but that’s how I explain it to my new patients.

Using Acupuncture for Rheumatoid Arthritis

As counterintuitive as it may seem, many of the points that acupuncturists target to treat pain from rheumatoid arthritis are not specific to the joints causing discomfort. For example, your acupuncturist may poke an area on the front of the leg, just below the knee. Another place where your energy can be “blocked”: Between the base of the thumb and the index finger. In Chinese medicine, these are called distal points and they control pain you may feel in other parts of your body.

“Thinking of it in terms of qi, everything flows through the body,” says Stephanie Cheng, MD, assistant professor of clinical anesthesiology and medical acupuncturist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. “So if you put a needle in, even if it’s away from the site that hurts, it can help with everything. For example, back pain can be treated with a stitch on the back of the knee.

In fact, practitioners generally avoid sticking needles directly into painful joints. “You always want to try to stay away from the affected area, especially when it’s significantly inflamed,” says Aaron Mills, DACM, an acupuncture and integrative Chinese medicine specialist at the University of California at San Francisco. “Once the inflammation has subsided, you may be able to continue treatment with more local or adjacent points.”

Traditional acupuncture uses thin needles. Other variations of the practice stimulate pressure points in different ways:

  • acupuncture point inserts a substance like herbal extract or bee venom into the tip through the acupuncture needle.

  • Dry switch places a thin needle directly into a tight muscle, called a trigger point.

  • Electric acupuncture or electroacupuncturepasses a small electric current through the needles.

  • laser acupuncture uses low intensity energy.

  • Moxibustion burns dried mugwort leaves on or near the skin to heat acupuncture points.

What are the possible benefits of acupuncture for rheumatoid arthritis?

How exactly acupuncture helps with RA is still a matter of debate. The prevailing theory is that placing the needles in the skin sends a message to the spinal cord and brain, triggering the release of natural pain-relieving chemicals called endorphins.

Acupuncture can also help relieve pain by reducing inflammation. Some studies have noted a decrease in inflammatory markers As Sedimentation rate (ESR) and C reactive protein (CRP) after people received acupuncture. In several studies, people who had had acupuncture reported less painbetter movement, and improved quality of life. Laser acupuncture and electroacupuncture also seem to help relieve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.

Still, experts say, it’s important to go into acupuncture therapy with a realistic idea of ​​what it can and can’t do. It will not repair your damaged joints or cure rheumatoid arthritis. It’s more about improving your overall well-being, which is essential for managing a chronic condition like rheumatoid arthritis. “Acupuncture only enhances your body’s ability to heal,” says Dr. Cheng.

Hutto has seen noticeable symptom improvements in his patients. “A reduction in pain is most important,” she says. She points out that since rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic disease, acupuncture works best as part of a long-term treatment plan. His patients come once a week — twice a week when they’re in the middle of an active flare-up — and continue to receive treatment indefinitely.

What are the risks ?

Acupuncture is safe, provided you see a trained and licensed acupuncturist, Mills says. Some people get a little dizzy from the needles, aptly called “needle shock.” If you are phobic about needles, let your acupuncturist know before starting treatment. A few of Dr. Cheng’s patients have unexpected emotional reactions to needles. “I saw people start sobbing for no reason,” she says. “Or they start laughing hysterically or feeling very euphoric.”

Other possible side effects that may accompany acupuncture include:

  • bruises

  • Needle site pain

  • Bleeding

  • Worsening of symptoms

Who should avoid acupuncture?

There are very few contraindications or cases where acupuncture should be avoided. According recent search, it is safe for almost everyone, including babies and pregnant women, according to experts. The rare exceptions are people with an active infection, blood clotting disorder, or cancer. If this applies to you, you will definitely want to consult your doctor first.

You may also need to avoid acupuncture with metal needles if you have a metal allergy or are going to have magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in the near future.

What are other natural treatments for rheumatoid arthritis?

Many acupuncturists also recommend herbal remedies for their RA patients. A few herbs and other plants have shown promise in relieving the pain and inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis Medicationsincluding:

Your acupuncturist will likely prescribe a specific blend of herbs, Hutto says. The intention is to treat not only RA, but also sleep, digestion, mental health, urinary issues, and other accompanying symptoms. You can take the herbs in capsule form or mixed with tea or hot water. (Before trying any herbal remedy, always check with the doctor treating your rheumatoid arthritis to make sure it won’t interact with any medications you’re taking.)

Try acupuncture

To find a licensed and trained acupuncturist in your area, you can search for the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM). Also check with your state’s medical licensing board. Licensing requirements may vary from state to state.

Many private insurance companies and Medicare cover a specific number of acupuncture sessions — Hutto says about 85% of his patients pay with insurance. If your acupuncturist is not part of the network, they may offer you a discount if you purchase a session package.

If you’re new to acupuncture, it’s best to give it more than a one-size-fits-all approach. Dr. Cheng recommends trying six to eight treatments to see if you feel a difference. Acupuncture doesn’t work for everyone, so if you don’t notice a difference after several visits, don’t consider it a failure. On the other hand, given the low risk of side effects, acupuncture for your RA may be worth trying.

Stephanie Watson

Meet our writer

Stephanie Watson

Stephanie Watson is a freelance writer with over 20 years of experience covering just about every health issue out there. Writing about the latest treatments and breakthroughs is more than just a job for


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