Stickin’ It Tue You: Acupuncture and Rheumatoid Arthritis

It’s been about 2,000 years in the making, but acupuncture is becoming more mainstream. Research shows that the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), osteoarthritis (OA), and fibromyalgia might be treated with acupuncture. But how?

The ancient – and current – theory of acupuncture goes like this: An essential life energy called qi (pronounced “chee”) flows through the body along 20 invisible channels called meridians. When the flow of this energy is blocked or out of balance, illness or pain occurs. More than 2,000 acupuncture points connect to the meridians. Stimulating those points with needles may correct the flow and alleviate pain.

You shouldn’t rely solely on acupuncture to treat a chronic or serious illness unless you see a doctor first. Acupuncture may not be the best or only way to improve your condition. For certain conditions, such as auto-immune diseases or cancer, you should get acupuncture in combination with other forms of treatment.

When speaking with his patients, Tim Rhudy, a licensed acupuncturist in the department of pain management at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, explains that acupuncture diminishes pain by “untying muscular straitjackets – releasing tight, spasmed, shortened muscles to their resting state.”

It also helps regulate the body’s nervous system, which can stimulate the release of natural pain-fighting endorphins.

And there’s more: Acupuncture tells the body where the battle is. When you cut your hand, the body sends help to the injury site. Likewise, when a needle is inserted into an acupuncture point, the body pays special attention to the micro-trauma and emits healing factors, says Rhudy.

Acupuncture also alters the perception of pain, he says. “Brain magnetic resonance imaging shows that deep needling of acupuncture points deactivates the part of the brain that deals with our perception of pain.” With deep needling, as opposed to superficial needling, a needle in inserted as far as one-half inch (12.7 millimeters).

Consider some the research:

RA. A recent study from China shows that both traditional acupuncture and electroacupuncture – a type in which pulsating electrical currents are sent through the needles to stimulate target areas – may reduce tenderness. All 36 participants had a standardized treatment, whether they received traditional acupuncture or electroacupuncture. During a total of 20 sessions throughout a 10-week period, needles were placed at a depth of about 10 to 20 millimeters and left in place for 30 minutes.

OA. In a German study, 304,674 people with knee OA who received 15 sessions of acupuncture combined with their usual medical care had less pain and stiffness, improved function and better quality of life than their counterparts who had routine care alone. The improvements occurred immediately after completing a three-month course of acupuncture and lasted for at least another three months, indicating OA is among conditions treated with acupuncture.

Fibromyalgia: Richard Harris, PhD, of the Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center at the University of Michigan Medical School, recruited 20 women who had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition, for at least one year. Half the women got traditional Chinese acupuncture, while the other half had sham acupuncture. They were then injected with a radioactive tag that binds to special receptors that block the transmission of pain signals in the brain­.

Scientists scanned the brains of the study participants during their first treatments, and then a month later, after eight treatment sessions. The results showed that Chinese acupuncture increased the activity of the pain-killing receptors in the brain, while treatment with sham acupuncture did not. “We were very excited,” Harris says.

What Happens During a Session:

The person who treats you is called an acupuncturist. The number of needles you’ll get, where they’re placed, and how deeply they’re inserted depends upon your particular case.

The needles will stay in place for several minutes to an hour. The acupuncturist may adjust, warm, or electrically energize them to intensify the effect. You may feel some tingling if electricity is used. It should be mild, and you can ask your acupuncturist to dial it down at any time.

You may need to get more than one session.

Does Acupuncture Hurt?

No. You may feel a slight prick when the needle is inserted, but it is much less than the prick you feel during a shot, since the needles are much thinner. You may feel a heaviness, numbness, tingling, or mild soreness after the needles have been put in.

Is It Safe?

Yes. When acupuncture is done with disposable needles under clean, sterile conditions, and by a qualified practitioner, complications are very unlikely.

What Are the Advantages of It?

It’s a drug-free way to ease pain. You can’t get addicted to it. And, the acupuncturist can immediately see how you respond and make any changes as needed.

Does the Medical Establishment Approve of It?

Yes. There are about 28,000 licensed acupuncturists in the U.S. Also, the World Health Organization recognizes about 30 medical problems, ranging from allergies to pain, that can be helped by acupuncture treatment. The FDA also sees acupuncture needles as medical devices.

Will My Health Insurance Policy Cover It?

Although Medicare and Medicaid will not cover acupuncture treatments, some health insurance companies will pay for this treatment. So check with your plan.

How Often Should I Get Acupuncture?

It depends on your condition and how well it works for you. Because it may take several sessions before you feel a benefit, plan to go at least 5-10 times for an initial treatment plan and occasionally for maintenance treatment.

Are There Any Restrictions on What I Can Do After a Treatment?

You’ll probably feel really relaxed, because acupuncture can be very calming. So you might want to have someone who can take you home. If you feel great after your session, you still need to pace yourself so you don’t try to do too much, too soon. You should keep taking any medicines your doctor prescribed, too.



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