There are many alternative treatments to treat arthritis, and acupuncture is one of the most popular.

Arthritis affects millions of people worldwide. It is a common condition that causes pain and inflammation in the joints.

Both rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and osteoarthritis (OA) can greatly impact a person’s ability to function normally. Both conditions involve symptoms ranging from mild discomfort to debilitating pain.

Acupuncture is an ancient treatment with origins in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The procedure involves inserting very fine stainless steel needles into specific parts of the body.

Before the treatment, a person undergoes a thorough assessment by a qualified practitioner. Then, an acupuncturist inserts the needles at specific locations on the body according to an individual’s specific health issues.

Studies suggest that acupuncture can relieve the symptoms of arthritis for some people. However, in others, there may be certain associated side effects and risks.

a person receiving acupuncture for arthritis has needles inserted in their upper backShare on Pinterest
Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty Images

TCM practitioners have used acupuncture for thousands of years to treat a wide range of complaints, including:

The TCM theory underlying acupuncture is that an essential life energy known as “qi” — pronounced “chee” — flows around the body through channels called “meridians.”

Experts believe a blockage in the flow of qi results in pain or illness. With acupuncture, a practitioner stimulates a combination of over 2,000 acupuncture points, restoring the flow of qi and alleviating symptoms.

Many studies have found evidence that acupuncture is effective in treating RA and OA, but exactly how it works is still a matter of debate.

One of the most popular explanations is that acupuncture has an anti-inflammatory effect. It may suppress the body’s inflammatory response, improve blood flow, or relax muscle tone.

Many professionals agree that acupuncture is effective in treating arthritis, but it is difficult to produce robust scientific evidence.

According to TCM, acupuncturists should individualize each patient’s treatment plan. For this reason, conducting reliable and controlled clinical trials can be challenging.

While the exact mechanisms of acupuncture are still unclear, some professionals suggest that if an individual feels better following treatment, it has been a success, whether they understand the process or not.

Many people who undergo acupuncture to treat arthritis report improvements in their quality of life.

According to the Arthritis Foundation, the main benefits of the treatment are:

  • stress relief, following the stimulation of endorphins and oxytocin
  • better sleep, due to the release of melatonin
  • improved sense of well-being from the release of serotonin
  • pain relief, as acupuncture stimulates nerve fibers to block out pain signals

In one study, people with RA in the hand benefitted significantly from acupuncture.

The researchers gave three groups either acupuncture using the TCM method, acupuncture in random points around the body, or no treatment until after the study.

The participants receiving treatment using the TCM approach reported less pain and improved quality of life, better hand and arm strength, and better overall health.

A review of studies into the use of acupuncture to treat knee OA also concludes that it is an effective way to treat the pain and physical dysfunction associated with the condition.

Supporters consider acupuncture a gentle way to heal the body that causes little to no pain in most people when performed by a qualified practitioner.

However, in rare cases, some may experience mild, short-term side effects, such as:

  • bleeding, bruising, or pain where the needles puncture the skin
  • drowsiness
  • nausea
  • feeling dizzy or faint
  • worsening of preexisting symptoms

When symptoms change or worsen following acupuncture, TCM practitioners believe the procedure may unearth blockages in the flow of qi that were initially not apparent.

In these cases, a person would need subsequent treatments to address any new symptoms.

Only highly trained professionals should perform acupuncture.

If a person performs acupuncture incorrectly, there can be risks, including:

However, there are few instances of people reporting these side effects, and acupuncture is generally considered a safe treatment.

Treatments for OA and RA are different because varying factors cause these conditions.

A person can sometimes manage mild OA symptoms by:

  • taking part in regular exercise
  • maintaining a moderate weight
  • wearing supportive footwear
  • using devices or techniques that reduce strain on the joints during everyday activities

In more severe cases, it might be necessary to take painkillers. People can also consult with a physiotherapist to draw up an exercise plan.

There are many ways that people with RA can manage their symptoms. Supplements, lifestyle changes, and other natural home remedies may be helpful.

Treatments prescribed by doctors fall into two main types: disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) and biological therapies.

DMARDs

DMARDs ease the symptoms of RA and slow down its progression. They work by minimizing the effects of the chemicals released when the immune system attacks the joints. Without treatment, these chemicals could cause further damage to nearby bones, tendons, ligaments, and cartilage.

Biological treatments

People usually take these alongside DMARDs if the DMARD has not been effective on its own. They work by stopping particular chemicals in the blood from triggering the immune system to attack the joints.

For adults with severe RA, a doctor may prescribe a new type of medicine called janus kinase inhibitors.

Arthritis presents a unique pattern of symptoms for each individual. Therefore, the best way to manage the condition could be combining different treatments.

Many people regard acupuncture as a tried and trusted procedure offering relief for those with arthritis.

While scientists may never be able to explain exactly how acupuncture works, for people with arthritis, whether mild or severe, it may be worth trying.