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Many people with arthritis choose to try acupuncture as a treatment for relieving pain. Does it work, and what do you need to know about it?

Patients with arthritis, a disease that is characterized by joint swelling, pain and stiffness, are generally treated with medication and exercise programs. Patients can add additional treatments to their regimen that can help reduce pain and improve other symptoms, however. One of these treatments is acupuncture, an ancient Chinese practice that involves the insertion of thin and fine needle into specific regions in your skin. The therapist can stimulate these needles using heat or a small electrical current.

What does acupuncture feel like?

As the needles are very fine, they generally do not hurt a person when they are inserted. However, you may feel some heaviness or tingling at the region where the needle was inserted.

How does acupuncture work?

The theory behind how acupuncture works is that it relieves pain by diverting pain signals that are going to your brain by stimulating pain-relieving receptors. These receptors cause the release of “happy” hormones including endorphins and encephalin. At first, the pain relief will only be for a short time. However, repeat treatment (usually six or eight sessions) brings long-term benefit that can last for several months. When the pain returns, you can go back and get acupuncture treatment again for a few months.

Similar to other treatments that relieve pain, acupuncture will sometimes but not always bring permanent pain relief. Additionally, it will not cure the disease or reverse/stop the disease disease progression. It will simply help relieve pain. Thus, if you are not responding to standard treatments, such as pain-relieving medication, you can try acupuncture.

Does acupuncture really work?

While the benefits of acupuncture have been hard to prove, some studies do support the use of acupuncture for specific purposes.

Osteoarthritis

One study published in 2014 showed that people with osteoarthritis (a common subtype of arthritis) who tried acupuncture had slightly less pain when compared to patients who did not undergo the treatment. While the authors did not conclude that the results were significant enough, acupuncture was found to help a bit. Therefore, patients can choose to try it.

Rheumatoid arthritis

For patients with rheumatoid arthritis, another common subtype of arthritis, most studies have not been able to prove any significant benefit of acupuncture with regards to joint swelling, damage or other arthritic symptoms. Some people with rheumatoid arthritis do claim that acupuncture helps treat their pain.

Fibromyalgia

Some studies have shown that acupuncture can work for treatment of fibromyalgia, which is a condition in which patients experience chronic pain. One meta-analysis looked at results across a number of different studies and found that research was inconclusive as some found that it helped while others did not. Thus, researchers so far say that there is not enough evidence to prove that acupuncture works.

So why do some studies find that acupuncture works while others don’t?

Researchers believe that the positive results they see in some patients can be due to the placebo effect. Essentially, patients feel better because they believe that acupuncture will help them feel better. In order to investigate whether this was the actual cause, one study in 2012 found that real acupuncture was actually more effective than placebo at relieving pain, but only by a very small margin. While 50 percent of patients who underwent acupuncture said that their pain improved, only 42.5 percent of patients receiving placebo treatment said that their pain improved.

Is acupuncture safe and suitable for everyone?

Acupuncture is believed to be safe and has several advantages. One particular advantage it is that ― unlike over-the-counter pain killers — acupuncture doesn’t really have any side effects. Therefore, even if you don’t experience benefit, you likely won’t experience any harm, either.

While acupuncture has been shown to be very safe, there are certain safety concerns such as:

  • Risk of infection if the needles are re-used (though most places now dispose them)
  • Feeling dizzy or faint
  • Bleeding and bruising (occasionally)

Additionally, acupuncture is not for everyone. If you are pregnant, you should likely avoid acupuncture. Another disadvantage of acupuncture is that if it is not covered by your insurance, then it can be quite costly (between $70-200 on average).

Furthermore, it doesn’t work for everyone. In patients with moderate osteoarthritis, experts suggest that a little more than 50 percent of patients will experience some sort of benefit. In fact, researchers find that patients with osteoarthritis of the knee and spine experience the most success with acupuncture. One particular type of acupuncture, known as electro-acupuncture, which is done using needles that transmit short electrical currents, has been shown to be especially beneficial for patients with osteoarthritis and leads to improved pain, joint stiffness and swelling.

Conclusion

If you are considering acupuncture as a treatment for arthritis-related pain, talk to your doctor first. As long as you stay on a conventional treatment regimen and acupuncture is covered by your insurance, there are generally no adverse effects to trying acupuncture.

  • Casimiro, Lynn, et al. "Acupuncture and electroacupuncture for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis." Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 4 (2005).
  • Lee, M. S., B-C. Shin, and E. Ernst. "Acupuncture for rheumatoid arthritis: a systematic review." Rheumatology 47.12 (2008): 1747-1753.
  • Ernst, Edzard, Myeong Soo Lee, and Tae-Young Choi. "Acupuncture: does it alleviate pain and are there serious risks? A review of reviews." PAIN®152.4 (2011): 755-764.
  • Photo courtesy of SteadyHealth

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