Worldwide, 175 million people suffer from some type of arthritis, with over 10% of the world’s population over 60 having some symptoms of osteoarthritis. With these numbers, arthritis is the fourth leading cause of years lived with a disability, and by the year 2030 researchers predict that 67 million people in the U.S. alone will have some form of arthritis. Those 175 million people are all looking for ways to reduce their pain and symptoms. What if an ancient remedy held the key? Here’s what we know about acupuncture and arthritis.
Acupuncture and arthritis: The basics
Before you can get a good idea of how acupuncture could work to relieve your arthritis symptoms, it’s important to know what type of pain you’re experiencing. The two most common forms of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. They share some common symptoms but are developed differently in the body.
Osteoarthritis is a “wear-and-tear” condition that affects the joints. As joints age, the cartilage that protects the end of the bones that connect to form joints begins to wear down. Over time, the bones can grind together, causing bone degradation. Even before bone degradation, an osteoarthritis sufferer will feel pain and inflammation in the affected joint. This condition is permanent and not reversible. In some cases, the degradation is such that surgical repair or replacement is necessary.
Other symptoms of osteoarthritis include the following:
- Limited range of motion
- Pain and stiffness in the affected joint, especially in the morning or after periods of inactivity
- Sensation of grating or grinding in the joint
- Tenderness in the affected area
- Formation of bone spurs, which are calcium deposits forming around the joint
Although this disease most often affects people over age 55, some populations of people in the world are more at risk for osteoarthritis than others. Women are twice as likely to develop osteoarthritis as men, and those in occupations with repetitive motion are more likely to develop osteoarthritis.
Obese people subject their joints to more pressure due to increased weight and thus suffer more osteoarthritis than non-obese people. Because obesity is more prevalent in people with a lower socio-economic status, that demographic is more likely to suffer from osteoarthritis and less likely to have their condition treated.
Osteoarthritis may be a result of old age and repetitive motion that occurs mostly in the elderly population, but there is a form of arthritis that can strike at any age.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that can affect multiple joints in the body, usually in a symmetrical fashion (i.e., both knees will be involved). There are a number of autoimmune disorders connected with rheumatoid arthritis, and the symptoms of pain and inflammation in the joints are common to all of them.
Rheumatoid arthritis affects the joints, ligaments, connective tissues, and tendons in the body. It usually appears during a person’s most productive years (20-40 years of age). This type of arthritis is more common in developed countries and occurs more frequently in women than men. 50% of people who develop rheumatoid arthritis are unable to work full-time within ten years of diagnosis.
Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are very similar to symptoms of osteoarthritis but can also include:
- Redness at the affected area
- Loss of appetite
- General feeling of being unwell (malaise)
Common arthritis treatments
Early and aggressive treatment is important when diagnosed with both types arthritis. In addition to medical interventions that can include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) along with other specific medications to control pain and infection, there are simple lifestyle changes that can be made to slow or halt the progression of arthritis.
In addition to acupuncture and arthritis, the most-commonly prescribed treatments that work include the following.
Starting with exercise
Movement every day keeps the supporting muscles strong and helps promote flexibility and increased range of motion. Practicing yoga helps with the body’s alignment, meaning that all joints and muscles are working in a balanced way to prevent uneven wear and tear.
Watching your weight
If you are currently carrying a few extra pounds, starting and maintaining a daily practice of exercise can go a long way in easing arthritis symptoms. Making dietary changes to help drop the weight does not have to be complicated or difficult. Start by increasing water intake, adding more fruits and vegetables to your daily diet, and limiting processed foods. Concentrate on lean protein, healthy fats (omega 3s are great for muscles, the brain, and your joints), and whole grains.
Kicking the habit
Smoking and drinking are risk factors for both rheumatoid and osteoarthritis. Although some studies suggest that consuming alcohol in small quantities has health benefits, there are no studies that indicate any benefit from smoking on any body system. In fact, smoking increases the risk of arthritis and has a negative impact on the heart, the weight, the mood, and the wallet. Save your money, save your life, and kick that habit.
If you’ve already gotten into a better exercise and diet routine, however, you may want more focused help. That’s where acupuncture and arthritis come in.
What is acupuncture, and how can it help with arthritis?
Acupuncture’s popularity has been increasing, and it’s now considered a viable treatment for a host of conditions. However, despite the popularity of acupuncture, many people don’t know how it’s performed or why it works. This practice, which involves the insertion of thin, sterile needles into specific locations, has been around for hundreds upon hundreds of years, although it has undergone a few changes.
Acupuncture is based on ancient beliefs surrounding the body’s life energy. Traditional Chinese medicine proposes that the life energy, or qi (pronounced chi), flows through meridians in the body. Meridians are like pathways or channels, and the qi in each meridian affects a certain part of the body. According to traditional Chinese medicine, pain, illness, and disease occur when the flow of qi is interrupted or unbalanced.
The needles are inserted at specific points along the meridians to restore balance to the qi. Modern science has not only proven that acupuncture can indeed be effective for several different conditions, but it’s provided an explanation for why it’s effective.
The research behind acupuncture
The concept of meridians and qi has not been proven and has been rejected by many modern scientists. Instead, modern Western societies believe that acupuncture’s efficacy can be explained by the nerves. Acupuncture points are thought to be spots on the body where nerves, muscles, and connective tissue can be stimulated. This increases blood flow while triggering the release of the body’s natural painkillers. Other modern theories suggest that the acupuncture needles trigger a response from the immune system, thereby rousing the body’s natural defenses.
Studies have been done on acupuncture’s ability to treat different conditions. Some, such as hot flashes during menopause, don’t respond at all to acupuncture. However, a lot have been shown to benefit from acupuncture treatments.
Some of the conditions that respond particularly well to acupuncture include:
- Indigestion experienced during pregnancy
- Low back pain
- Post-operative dental pain
- Painful menstrual cycles
- Chemotherapy-related nausea
And finally, there’s been recent research linking acupuncture and arthritis.
Is acupuncture effective for arthritis?
Research on acupuncture and arthritis is new, but there are a few landmark studies that show this to be a promising new path to treatment. The landmark study backing the use of acupuncture for arthritis pain is from the National Center of Complementary and Integrative Health, a branch of the NIH. They found that acupuncture for osteoarthritis of the knee could reduce pain and improve function.
Stephen E. Straus, M.D., NCCAM Director, notes that:
“For the first time, a clinical trial with sufficient rigor, size, and duration has shown that acupuncture reduces the pain and functional impairment of osteoarthritis of the knee. These results also indicate that acupuncture can serve as an effective addition to a standard regimen of care and improve quality of life for knee osteoarthritis sufferers. NCCAM has been building a portfolio of basic and clinical research that is now revealing the power and promise of applying stringent research methods to ancient practices like acupuncture.”
The Arthritis Foundation also took a look at the available studies on acupuncture for osteoarthritis pain. Study results are mixed, but one in particular did point to opportunities for pain relief. They noted:
“A 2004 study by Dr. Berman and his colleagues found that after 26 weeks, patients receiving real acupuncture felt significantly less pain and functioned better (as measured by how far they could walk in six minutes) than their counterparts who received sham acupuncture.”
Acupuncture and other therapies
But, even if the effects aren’t scientifically-proven yet, many in the pain treatment community are still hopeful. Another Arthritis Foundation article reported the following:
Other doctors say that even if acupuncture’s benefits are largely due to a placebo effect, it still could be worth trying. Growing research suggests that fake needles and other placebos may prevent pain signals from reaching the brain and promote other biological changes that could relieve symptoms of osteoarthritis and other conditions.”
The Pacific College of Oriental Medicine goes on to explain that acupuncture works best when used with other therapies. They explain:
“The studies indicated that between 25-40 percent who received acupuncture in conjunction with the conventional and self therapy had a decrease in pain and a noted improvement in function of arthritic joints.”
Should I try acupuncture for arthritis pain?
Even if more research needs to be done, healthcare professionals from the NIH, the Arthritis Foundation, and Pacific College of Oriental Medicine all agree that acupuncture provides a very safe, minimally-invasive pain treatment option for many patients. Since there are no side effects, talk to your doctor to find a reputable acupuncturist in your area. Acupuncture is increasingly covered by insurance too, so talk to your doctor about your options. Acupuncture and arthritis could be a good addition to your pain management strategy.
What should I expect?
Save for a few minor changes, acupuncture is performed in the much the same way as it has been for the last thousand years. The same acupuncture points are used today as the ones established by The Great Compendium during the Ming dynasty and by bronze statues during the 15th centuries. The needles used in the past were made of materials like stone or bone. Some were even crafted from gold or silver.
Today almost all acupuncture needles are stainless steel filament needles. They come in sterile packaging and are thrown away after each use. Each acupuncture therapist is unique, but there are a few consistencies between all of them.
During the first visit, the acupuncturist will do a thorough assessment. This will include questions about your arthritis symptoms, lifestyle, or other medical conditions. It may also include examination of painful body parts, studying of the individual’s pulse, and consideration of the face and tongue’s coloring.
When the needles are inserted, it’s unlikely that there will be much discomfort, because of the extremely thin nature of acupuncture needles. However, it is possible to experience a deep, aching sensation once the needles reach the correct depth. The acupuncture therapist might gently manipulate the needles after insertion, too. Sometimes heat or electrical impulses are applied through the needles, as well.
The needles will remain in place for ten to 30 minutes. There is usually no pain – indeed, very little sensation at all – when the needles are removed. The used needles should then be thrown away. Typical acupuncture therapies are comprised of several treatments spread out over several weeks or a few months.
Is acupuncture safe?
Acupuncture has a relatively small set of risks and side effects.
There are some people who have a higher risk of negative side effects from acupuncture. Those with bleeding disorders or who take blood thinners should probably avoid acupuncture – or, at the very least, discuss it in-depth with your pain doctor before pursuing acupuncture treatment. Additionally, some types of acupuncture can interfere with implanted devices, such as pacemakers or spinal cord stimulators, or induce early labor in pregnant women. For people with these conditions, it’s a good idea to talk with a physician, as well as discuss all health concerns with the acupuncture therapist before being treated.
The other risks associated with acupuncture are extremely rare when working with an experienced, reputable acupuncture therapist. For instance, if a needle is pushed in too deeply, it can cause organ damage. Additionally, the risk of infection is extremely low if the acupuncturist uses sterile, disposable needles.
To find a good acupuncture therapist, start by asking questions. Ask friends or family who have had good acupuncture experiences, or ask a trusted physician. The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) also maintains a searchable database of certified acupuncturists. After finding a few potential acupuncture therapists, look for online reviews to make sure he or she is the right fit.
Get help for your arthritis pain
If you’re interested in learning more about acupuncture and arthritis, schedule an appointment with a certified pain specialist to talk about your options. They’ll be able to help you learn more about acupuncture and other complementary therapies for pain management. Click the button below to find a highly-qualified pain specialist in your area today.