Acupuncture & The Treatment of Rheumatoid Arthritis

By: Jaime Marks, L.Ac.  In western medicine, Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is considered an autoimmune disease caused by unknown factors. The onset is usually gradual, affecting inflammation of several joints, mainly small joints in the feet, wrists, elbows, and ankles. These joints will be tender to the touch, and can also become stiff, painful, and swollen. RA is diagnosed by an elevated Rheumatoid Factor through a blood test and X-ray, which will indicate a narrowing of the joint spaces and erosion. The usual treatment is non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAIDS), such as Ibuprofen, corticosteroids, exercise, physical therapy, and rest.

Patients are often frustrated with the lack of relief provided solely by western medicine, and seek alternative and complementary treatments, including acupuncture, to manage their symptoms. Traditional Chinese medicine classifies Rheumatoid Arthritis as “Bi Zheng,” an impediment syndrome caused by the invasion of wind, cold, damp, and heat. These external evils are diagnosed according to the characteristics of how the symptoms are presented in the joints of the body.

If the pain and swelling comes and goes and travels from one area to another, the cause is wind. If the affected area is red or hot, with early morning stiffness, heat is to blame. If the joints are typically cold, pale, and stiff, with symptoms worse in the cold weather, cold weather is to blame. And if you’re experiencing swelling and heaviness, stiffness, and restricted movements of the joints often worse in the damp, humid, and hot weather, dampness is the culprit. These patterns will usually appear in a combination of the four evils and will present themselves in a variety of ways depending on the stage of RA. The condition may also affect proper functioning of the organs, including the liver, kidney, and spleen, as well as blood and overall energy (qi) levels.

By inserting thin needles around the inflamed joint areas, acupuncture can work at a deep level by promoting blood flow and movement, to unblock any energy blockages and stagnation that may be creating the uncomfortable, swollen feeling about which many patients complain. Acupuncture provides many therapeutic benefits: alleviate joint pain, reduce inflammation and swelling, provide relaxation to the body, and promote a general anesthesia and lessened pain by stimulating the release of endorphins — the body’s natural pain killers.

Additionally, acupuncture strengthens the immune system to help prevent any other associated illnesses and balance the nervous system to relax the body and mind. In so doing, it helps minimize the stress that often appears simultaneously to disease.

Lastly, acupuncture does not provide any harmful side effects that prescribed medications often present.

There have been many studies conducted on the efficacy of acupuncture on RA, and the results have been mixed. Many of these studies were inconclusive in finding significant benefits of acupuncture on pain, or how to measure a reduction on swollen joints as compared to controlled treatments. However, some studies showed two factors associated with chronic inflammation decreased; Tumor Necrosis Factor- alpha (TNF-α,) and Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor (VEGF). The mechanism of how this occurs is still unknown and needs further evaluation. Researchers and physicians believe acupuncture works deeply on both the peripheral and central nervous systems affecting the immunological, neurological, hormonal, and psychological systems. The more studies that are employed showing the reduction in inflammatory markers will provide evidence-based medicine to support the use of acupuncture in the treatment of RA.

Acupuncture and the relief of RA symptoms is often experiential and anecdotal. Patients report a great deal of relief with the associated inflammation, swelling, and pain attributed to RA. If you are experiencing any of these uncomfortable symptoms, acupuncture is a good adjunct therapy to help manage the discomfort.

A treatment strategy will be designed according to your specific needs and symptoms, including the use of needles, electro acupuncture, and often herbs or supplements, and dietary changes will be recommended to help alleviate symptoms. The number of treatments vary on the severity and stage of the disease.

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