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Can Acupuncture Offer Relief for Rheumatoid Arthritis?

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Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disease that causes stiffness, swelling, and pain in a person's joints—most often the hands and feet. According to the American College of Rheumatology, the disease affects more than 1.3 million Americans. The pain of RA can be debilitating, affecting productivity in the workplace and quality of life. RA treatment typically consists of antirheumatic drugs and pain medications. However, for those cases in which traditional pain killers fail to achieve adequate pain relief or when the patient does not want to rely on prescription pain medications, some health professionals are recommending acupuncture as a solution.

What Is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese healing art that has been practiced for more than 2000 years—long before modern medical practices—to treat many health conditions. It is based on the idea that there is a vital energy called qi (or chi) that flows throughout the body through pathways called meridians. Practitioners of acupuncture believe that an imbalance of this energy (too much, too little, or a blocked flow) results in disease. They believe that by inserting extremely thin acupuncture needles into specific points along these pathways, they can rebalance the energy and return the body to its naturally healthy state.

Although there are few scientific studies to support acupuncture as an effective pain reliever for RA, there are a great many anecdotal stories of successful outcomes. One common theory for why it works is that acupuncture points are places where the practitioner can stimulate muscles and nerve fibers. The stimulation increases blood flow and releases endorphins, the body's "feel-good" hormones, which may reduce a person's pain or other symptoms. Studies of brain imagery during acupuncture treatments show that the treatment actually raises the patient's pain threshold, which may explain the pain relief that many RA patients report.

What Happens during a Treatment?

Your acupuncturist will first conduct a thorough medical history and physical exam to determine the best acupuncture points to use. You'll be provided with a gown that allows easy access to these points. You will most likely be lying down, either face up or face down, depending on the location of the specific points. The practitioner will then insert prepackaged, one-time-use needles into the various points around your body. The amount of needles used will vary based on what the practitioner decides you need, but will usually be between 4 and 20. The needles are inserted between one and a half to two inches deep. The needles remain in place for 20 to 30 minutes or longer while you relax on the table.

After the session, the acupuncturist removes and discards the needles. He or she typically will massage your neck and shoulders to stimulate blood flow.

Does Acupuncture Hurt?

No. The needles are so thin you will barely feel them going in. At the most, you will feel a slight tingling or dull, achy sensation.

How Many Treatments Are Necessary for Relief of RA Pain?

Although many RA sufferers report getting some relief after the first session, the relief usually lasts only a day or two. For long-term relief, your practitioner will likely recommend a series of treatments—typically two treatments a week for a month, then once a month for 6 months or so. Everyone responds differently, so you may require more or fewer sessions to get the relief you desire.

Acupuncture treatment for the pain of RA should always be done with the cooperation of your regular physician. It should be used as a complementary treatment to the antirheumatic drugs your doctor prescribes. Acupuncture is not a cure for RA. However, it may help decrease your reliance on prescription drugs and reduce the side effects associated with them.