Acupuncture is touted as a useful pain remedy, which may lead some people to wonder if it could help with joint pain and achiness from rheumatoid arthritis. Acupuncture will not stop the progression of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or prevent joint damage, so it shouldn’t be considered an alternative to medication. But that doesn’t mean acupuncture is useless to people living with RA. In fact, for some people with RA, acupuncture may be an effective addition or complement to traditional treatment.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a progressive disease that doesn’t currently have a cure. A holistic treatment approach — personalized for you, your condition, and your lifestyle — is the best way to manage RA symptoms, slow disease progression, and reduce the frequency of flares.
RA symptoms include pain, joint swelling, stiffness, and fatigue. Early phases of RA tend to affect smaller joints first, including the joints that connect your fingers and hands and your toes and feet. Inflammation and joint damage can also affect the wrists, knees, ankles, elbows, hips, and shoulders as the disease progresses.
Acupuncture, a type of traditional Chinese medicine that dates back almost 3,000 years, is a form of complementary or alternative medicine (CAM). Today, acupuncture is the most popular alternative treatment in America, with more than 10 million acupuncture treatments done every year, often geared toward pain relief. In traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is thought to balance the body’s vital energy, called “qi” (also spelled “chi,” “ch’i” or “ki”).
Acupuncture involves inserting very thin needles into the skin. Practitioners of acupuncture treatment, called acupuncturists, are licensed trained professionals. If you’re interested in trying acupuncture, be sure to find a board-certified acupuncturist for your treatment. During a session, an acupuncturist places the acupuncture needles strategically at specific points in the body (called acupoints or acupuncture points), which may help stimulate the nerves, muscle, and connective tissue.
There are several types of acupuncture:
Goals of RA treatment include reducing symptom severity, slowing disease progression, minimizing joint damage, and improving quality of life. In combination with conventional medical treatments for RA, acupuncture may help reach those goals.
A common feature of RA is pain — especially early morning stiffness and chronic joint pain. Evidence shows acupuncture may provide some temporary relief of chronic pain, including in the joints. More research is needed to understand how exactly acupuncture helps decrease pain, although the findings of a 2010 study suggest that acupuncture may deactivate areas in the brain that are associated with processing pain. It’s also believed that acupuncture relieves pain by stimulating the production of endorphins, the body’s natural painkiller.
One myRAteam member described her positive experience using acupuncture for her symptoms: “It is so easy and not painful that you really don’t think it’s working until you stay still for a while with the needles in and realize that your pain has gone way down! Sometimes, the pain goes away altogether.”
An expanding body of evidence shows that acupuncture can help manage pain, but what benefits one person may not necessarily help another. There is no one-size-fits-all treatment regimen to address RA in all people living with the autoimmune disease, and results with acupuncture may vary.
“I tried acupuncture for a while. Unfortunately for me, there was no improvement,” said a member. “Others may react differently, so it may be worth giving it a try.”
Another member shared a positive experience: “I have acupuncture this afternoon — it helps a lot!”
Finding the ideal treatments for you and your specific RA needs may take some patience and trial and error.
It may help to have the support of others who understand and have been there. On myRAteam, the social network for people with rheumatoid arthritis, more than 140,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with RA.
Have you tried acupuncture for your rheumatoid arthritis? Was acupuncture helpful, harmful, or neither for you? Share your experiences with acupuncture in the comments below or start a conversation on myRAteam.