Acupuncture for Rheumatoid Arthritis

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When you suffer from the autoimmune disorder rheumatoid arthritis (RA), you’ve probably become used to daily aches, as well as joint stiffness and inflammation in your knees, hips, elbows and wrists. If you’re looking for an alternative treatment to help alleviate some of your pain, you might want to consider acupuncture. This ancient form of Chinese medicine involves the insertion of extremely thin needles through your skin at strategic points on your body. And it’s thought to restore the optimal flow of energy and balance in the body.

Many acupuncturists view acupuncture points as places to stimulate nerves, muscles, and connective tissue, possibly boosting your body's natural painkillers and increasing blood flow. Several studies have examined how this alternative medicine may help rheumatoid arthritis patients and found that acupuncture has a positive effect on the cells that contribute to chronic inflammation and joint destruction associated with RA. Acupuncture may help decrease your RA pain, reduce morning stiffness, and abate inflammation.

Traditional Acupuncture and RA

Acupuncture relieves pain by stimulating the release of endorphins, a brain chemical that makes you feel happy, relaxed, and alleviates pain. This practice may help with your autoimmune disorder because it affects immunity, as well as having neurological, hormonal and psychological effects on the body.

Acupuncture stimulates specific acupoints, which cluster near nerves. Needle placement activates the nerve and sends a signal to the spinal cord and brain, the pain centers of the nervous system. These are then activated to produce endorphins, which is how acupuncture works to reduce or eliminate pain.

What to Expect

First, do your research. Find a licensed acupuncturist who will be able to address your rheumatoid arthritis. Allow yourself about an hour for the initial evaluation. The acupuncturist should discuss your RA symptoms, as well as your lifestyle and behaviors.

When a needle is inserted into the skin at your body’s acupoint, you might feel soreness, tingling, or electrical sensations. These feelings are associated with nerves being activated. The needles will remain in place for about 10 to 20 minutes while you lie still and relax. After they needles are removed, you might have soreness, minor bleeding, or slight bruising at the needle sites over the next few days.

Electro-Acupuncture and RA

Electro-acupuncture is similar to traditional acupuncture but the needles are stimulated with a mild  wave of electrical current that passes between pairs of acupuncture needles. One study has shown that electro-stimulation may even be more effective because it offers more consistent stimuli of the body’s pressure points, working faster and over a larger area than a practitioner would be able to in the same time frame.

Will Acupuncture Cure Your RA?

Acupuncture hasn’t been shown to prevent joint damage from RA or other autoimmune diseases. Research is conflicting as to whether this form of Chinese medicine can control inflammation, although some patients have reported less inflammation after undergoing treatment. What we do know is that acupuncture can help with RA-related pain by stimulating the production of endorphins. This  contributes to an elevated overall sense of well-being and improved quality of life. Acupuncture is probably best used in conjunction with RA disease-modifying medications to fight pain with minimal side effects.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 May 7
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