Many practitioners say that acupuncture can help relieve the symptoms of psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis. What does the research say?

Acupuncture is the ancient practice of inserting thin needles into the skin. People have used it as a complementary treatment for thousands of years.

Some studies have suggested that acupuncture can help with pain relief, stress management, immune system response, and inflammation. However, researchers need to conduct more large-scale, double-blind studies before they can prove this.

Scientists have also studied the effects of acupuncture in psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis (PsA).

Although they have not yet confirmed its alleged benefits, receiving acupuncture from a licensed and qualified provider has very few risks, so it may be worth a try for people who have psoriasis or PsA.

In this article, we review the evidence around acupuncture for psoriasis, what the procedure involves, and possible risks.

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Acupuncture may help with inflammation and immune system response.

Psoriasis is an autoimmune condition that causes red or purple scaly patches on the skin that may peel, itch, and bleed.

PsA, which affects some people who have psoriasis, can cause joint pain, swelling, and stiffness.

Traditional treatments for these conditions include:

  • taking medicines to calm the immune system reaction
  • using skin creams to help control the peeling and buildup of scales
  • taking prescription anti-inflammatory medicines
  • having steroid injections
  • avoiding triggers, such as stress or alcohol

Acupuncture could also be a helpful treatment for psoriasis. Some research has suggested that acupuncture may be worth considering:

  • A 2015 systematic review found "some evidence of benefit" in treating psoriasis. However, its authors explain that they based their conclusions on a small number of studies, and that there were some conflicting results.
  • A 2017 overview of the literature on acupuncture for psoriasis was more optimistic. The authors claim that acupuncture treatment for psoriasis is "simple, convenient, and effective," with minimal side effects and little risk of toxicity.
  • A 2017 review of 13 randomized trials states that acupuncture-related treatments "could be considered" as an alternative therapy for the short-term treatment of psoriasis, and that more well designed studies would be helpful.

Injury to the skin, such as a cut or scrape, is a trigger for psoriasis flares. However, acupuncture needles are very thin, sterile, and single-use, so they should cause little to no injury to the skin.

Although evidence for acupuncture as a treatment for PsA specifically is lacking, many studies have shown that acupuncture works well in relieving other types of joint pain:

  • A 2018 study found that acupuncture reduced joint pain in postmenopausal women who were undergoing treatment for early-stage breast cancer.
  • A 2019 study found that acupuncture had some benefit for people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in the hand. The treatment helped reduce pain and improved strength in the hand.
  • A 2018 review of acupuncture treatment for RA concluded that acupuncture alone or combined with other treatments is "worth trying." The authors explain that acupuncture has anti-inflammatory and antioxidative effects, and that it helps regulate immune system function. These three factors are important in treating PsA.

Both psoriasis and PsA can cause stress and anxiety due to pain, itching, swelling, the skin's appearance, and other factors.

Acupuncture may be one way to help treat that anxiety and improve quality of life for people with psoriasis and PsA.

Evidence suggests that acupuncture can help with anxiety symptoms, which could be beneficial for people with psoriasis and PsA:

  • A 2018 clinical trial found that ear acupuncture was effective in reducing exam-related stress in college students.
  • A small-scale 2016 study found that acupuncture helped reduce anxiety levels in people with anxiety disorders. Changes in part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex showed that acupuncture could induce a relaxation effect.
  • A 2017 review found that acupuncture was helpful in relieving anxiety in women with infertility.

Although these studies do not prove that acupuncture can help with psoriasis or PsA-related anxiety specifically, the anxiety-relieving effects of acupuncture could be helpful for people living with these conditions.

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An acupuncturist may use electrical stimulation on the needles to increase their effect.

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practice that involves placing tiny needles in the skin.

The needles stimulate acupuncture points on the body. They are thinner than those that doctors use to draw blood or give injections, as they only enter the surface of the skin.

Acupuncturists generally believe that stimulating certain points of the body helps its energy, or qi, flow freely. in turn, this can help treat or prevent certain health conditions.

During an acupuncture appointment, a person may need to remove some of their clothing so that the acupuncturist can access certain parts of the body, such as the abdomen, ankles, neck, back, or wrists.

Usually, the person will lie down on a bed and use a sheet or blanket to cover up and keep warm.

The acupuncturist may use an alcohol wipe to clean the areas that they intend to stimulate. Then, they lightly tap the needles into the specified points on the body. In some cases, the acupuncturist may use heat or electrical stimulation on the needles to enhance their effect.

At this point, the acupuncturist may leave the person alone to rest while the needles stay on the skin. Some practitioners use soft music, heat lamps, or other comfort measures during this time.

After several minutes, the practitioner will return to the room, remove the needles, and dispose of them in a sharps container.

Acupuncture may not be a quick fix, however. It may require several visits before a person sees results.

For example, one case report found that a woman underwent acupuncture once per week for 13 weeks and only then experienced an improvement in her psoriasis symptoms.

Another case report had a similar outcome, with people reporting improvements in their psoriasis symptoms after 14 weeks of the treatment.

When a person receives acupuncture from a licensed provider, the risks are very low, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulate acupuncture needles as medical devices. This means that only licensed providers should use them, always ensuring that they are sterile, nontoxic, and have only one use before disposal.

However, if a person receives acupuncture from an unlicensed or nonqualified provider, or if the needles are not sterile and single-use, there are risks of infection, injury, and serious effects such as punctured organs.

Before receiving acupuncture, check that the provider is licensed or certified and is educated in TCM and acupuncture. The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine list board-certified acupuncture providers on their website.

People who have psoriasis or PsA may find that an alternative treatment such as acupuncture can help them keep their condition under control.

Acupuncture can also help relieve stress, which could help prevent some psoriasis flares.

People who have psoriasis and PsA should still see a medical practitioner regularly. This can help ensure that their condition remains under control.

They should also tell their healthcare provider about acupuncture and any other complementary treatments they are trying.