Acupuncture for Joint Pain Relief

Acupuncture is an alternative medicine practice in which small, thin needles go into the skin at different points on the body.

Traditional Chinese medicine holds that acupuncture works by balancing your body’s flow of energy. Many experts in Western medicine say that the procedure stimulates your nerves, tissues, and muscles.

It’s hard for scientists to study acupuncture’s effects, but some researchers think it may make your body release natural painkillers.

If you have a condition that causes painful joints, you may have thought about trying acupuncture. Here’s what you need to know first.

Acupuncture for Osteoarthritis

This is the most common type of arthritis. It usually begins in your 50s. It can affect any joint, but most people feel it in the knees, hips, hands, lower back, and neck.

Does acupuncture help joint pain from osteoarthritis? It’s hard to study using the strict standards scientists prefer. So far, research has shown mixed results. But the American College of Rheumatology, a group for doctors who specialize in arthritis, approves acupuncture for treatment of hand, knee, and hip pain. The evidence is strongest that it can help with knees.

Acupuncture for Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)

When you have this type of arthritis, your immune system overreacts and attacks the lining of your joints. Hands, knees, and ankles are the most common places for RA symptoms.

The evidence on acupuncture’s effects for people with RA suggests that it’s worth trying. Researchers say the procedure may improve everyday life with the condition and the way your joints work.

Acupuncture for Related Conditions

Scientists also have studied whether acupuncture can help people with rarer forms of arthritis and other conditions that cause joint pain. Here’s what they found:

  • Fibromyalgia, a pain disorder, is sometimes confused with arthritis because it causes soreness all over the body. There’s not enough evidence to say acupuncture can help.
  • Ankylosing spondylitis (AS) is a type of arthritis that mainly affects the spine, although other joints can hurt, too. So far, studies can’t say for sure that acupuncture helps people with this condition.
  • Lupus is not a type of arthritis, but arthritis is one of its symptoms. More study is needed before researchers can say for sure whether acupuncture helps.
  • Gout, a type of arthritis, usually affects the big toes, but it can cause pain in your ankles, knees, and feet. Scientists think that acupuncture might help ease pain from gout, but more research is needed to know for sure.

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What Happens When You Have Acupuncture?

You’ll have a first appointment to go over your condition. The acupuncturist should tell you how many treatments you’ll need. Six to eight sessions is typical.

At each session, the acupuncturist will put very thin needles into various places in your skin. Most people say they feel little pain, though it’s common to feel pressure or a slight ache once the needles are in. The acupuncturist might apply heat or electrical current to the needles, or gently move them.

The needles stay in for 10 to 20 minutes. During that time, you lie still. Then the acupuncturist takes them out. Removal doesn’t hurt.

What Are the Risks?

The chances that acupuncture will harm you are very low. That’s one of the reasons doctors say it’s OK to try it even though there’s sometimes limited proof that it helps arthritis.

Make sure your practitioner uses new, sterile needles for each client, so there’s a lower chance of infection. Some people bruise or feel sore later at the spot where the needles went in.

Some people should be more cautious before they get acupuncture. Ask your doctor about it if you:

The biggest drawback may be financial. Your insurance may not cover the cost.

If You Want to Try It

Talk to your doctor first. They can review all of your conditions to make sure acupuncture is a good idea for you.

To find an acupuncturist, look for national acupuncture organizations, which may have a list of providers for your area. Most states require some type of license. Make sure you choose someone who has valid credentials.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on May 12, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Acupuncture in Depth.”

Mayo Clinic: “Acupuncture.”

Arthritis Foundation: “Acupuncture for Arthritis,” “Osteoarthritis,” “Rheumatoid Arthritis,” “Fibromyalgia,” “Gout.”

Arthritis & Rheumatology: “2019 American College of Rheumatology/Arthritis Foundation Guideline for the Management of Osteoarthritis of the Hand, Hip, and Knee.”

Evidence-Based Alternative and Complementary Medicine: “Clinical Efficacy of Acupuncture on Rheumatoid Arthritis and Associated Mechanisms: A Systemic Review.”

Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine: “Efficacy of Acupuncture on Fibromyalgia Syndrome: A Meta-Analysis.”

Spondylitis Association of America: “Overview of Ankylosing Spondylitis.” 

Medicina Clinica: “Efficacy of Acupuncture in Rheumatic Diseases With Spinal Involvement: Systematic Review.”

Lupus Foundation of America: “How Lupus Differs from Arthritis.”

Current Rheumatology Reports: “Updated Review of Complementary and Alternative Medicine Treatments for Systemic Lupus Erythematosus.”

Rheumatology: “Acupuncture for gouty arthritis: a concise report of a systematic and meta-analysis approach.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Acupuncture.”

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