Arthritis is a common condition that causes pain and inflammation in the joints. There are many alternative and complementary treatments for arthritis, and acupuncture is one of the most popular to help relieve symptoms and pain.

Acupuncture is a technique within traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) that involves inserting very fine needles into the skin or muscle on specific body parts. Some evidence suggests it may help ease arthritis symptoms and improve the quality of life for people with the condition.

This article describes what acupuncture is, how it works, and how it may affect arthritis. We then outline some of the practice’s benefits, side effects, and risks and discuss other treatment options. Finally, we answer some frequently asked questions about acupuncture for arthritis.

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Acupuncture involves inserting very fine stainless steel needles into the skin or muscle on specific body parts. The underlying theory is that 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 to alleviate symptoms.

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

While Eastern medicine recognizes concepts of bodily energy, such as qi and meridians, Western culture has its own hypotheses for how acupuncture may work.

One of the most popular explanations is that inserting needles beneath the skin may signal the brain to release pain-relieving neurotransmitters called endorphins and enkephalins. It may also provide the following benefits:

  • stimulating the production of the hormone cortisol, which helps control inflammation
  • regulating the immune system
  • stimulating blood flow
  • relaxing muscle tone

The exact mechanisms of acupuncture are still unclear. However, some healthcare professionals suggest that if an individual feels better following treatment, the treatment was a success, regardless of whether doctors understand the process or not.

Acupuncturists should tailor acupuncture treatment according to a person’s individual needs. For this reason, conducting reliable and controlled clinical trials can be challenging.

A 2018 systematic review of 43 studies concluded that acupuncture alone or in combination with other treatments is beneficial for managing rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and can help improve function and quality of life.

A more recent 2022 systematic review and meta-analysis investigated the effectiveness of acupuncture and acupuncture-related treatments (ACNRT) as a complementary therapy in managing RA. In this study, ACNRT involved one of the following:

  • Traditional acupuncture: Involves inserting fine needles into the skin or muscle at key acupuncture sites.
  • Electro-acupuncture: This involves stimulating the acupuncture needles with an electric current to enhance the effects of the procedure.
  • Moxibustion: A practitioner burns mugwort leaves close to the skin’s surface at key acupuncture sites.

The meta-analysis included 12 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in which participants received Western medicine alone or in combination with ACNRT.

People who received Western medicine in combination with ACNRT showed significant reductions in the following:

  • inflammatory markers in the blood
  • disease activity
  • swollen and tender joints
  • self-reported pain

The study authors concluded that Western medicine with ACNRT can reduce RA disease markers and significantly improve clinical symptoms. However, they note that further long-term, high quality RCTs with larger sample sizes are necessary to confirm the findings.

Many people who undergo acupuncture to treat arthritis report improvements in their quality of life. According to the Arthritis Foundation, acupuncture aids pain relief as there is the stimulation of endorphins and oxytocin.

A 2019 study investigated the effectiveness of acupuncture on pain, disability, and quality of life in people with RA of the hand.

Each participant received one of the following treatments:

  • acupuncture using the TCM method
  • sham acupuncture, which involved acupuncture at random sites on the body
  • no treatment until after the study

The participants receiving treatment using the TCM approach reported the following benefits:

  • less pain
  • improved hand and arm strength
  • better overall health
  • improved quality of life

The above findings suggest that traditional acupuncture may be a beneficial treatment option for RA of the hands.

Supporters of acupuncture claim that the technique is a gentle way to heal the body. They state that a person who receives acupuncture from a qualified practitioner can expect to feel little to no pain during the procedure.

In rare cases, someone 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, practitioners believe the procedure may have unearthed 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.

Individuals should only ever receive acupuncture from a highly trained professional.

Incorrectly performing acupuncture increases the risk of serious adverse effects. These may include:

However, there are few instances of people reporting the above side effects. Most experts consider acupuncture a generally safe procedure when an experienced, well-trained practitioner performs it.

There are many different types of arthritis, with RA and osteoarthritis (OA) being the most common. The different types of arthritis have different causes, contributing factors, and disease courses and therefore require different treatments.

Treatments for osteoarthritis

OA, or “wear and tear” arthritis, involves degeneration of the cartilage and bones, typically due to aging.

A person can sometimes manage mild OA symptoms by:

  • performing 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, individuals may need to take painkillers.

Read more about treating OA naturally.

Treatments for rheumatoid arthritis

RA is an autoimmune condition where the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy body cells and tissues, causing pain and inflammation. Most cases primarily affect the joints.

Most people with RA take medications to help slow the progression of the disease and alleviate the symptoms.

Prescription treatments fall into two main types: disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) and biologics.

Read on for the differences between the two types of treatments.

DMARDs

DMARDs slow the progression of RA and ease the symptoms of the disease. They work by suppressing the immune system response that attacks and damages the joints. Without treatment, this process could cause further damage to nearby bones, tendons, ligaments, and cartilage.

Biological therapies

People usually take biologics alongside DMARDs if the DMARD has been ineffective on its own. Biologics work by stopping particular chemicals in the blood from triggering the immune system to attack the joints.

Newer medications

A doctor may prescribe a new type of medication called janus kinase inhibitors for adults with severe RA. These drugs block chemical messengers called “cytokines” from triggering an immune response.

Below are some FAQs about acupuncture.

How long do the effects of acupuncture last?

While acupuncture may help alleviate RA pain and inflammation in some people, the treatment may not be effective for everyone.

For those who experience symptom relief, it is not possible to say how long the effects will last. A person can talk with their acupuncture practitioner about the likely treatment outcomes and whether there is anything that may help prolong the effects.

If acupuncture treatment is not having desirable effects, the practitioner may adjust the treatment plan accordingly.

How often should I get acupuncture?

A course of acupuncture treatment typically involves several separate sessions of around 20 minutes or more.

However, a person should talk with their acupuncture practitioner regarding the number and frequency of acupuncture treatments necessary to manage their condition.

How much does acupuncture cost?

The cost of acupuncture ranges from around $75 to $200 per session.

While some health insurance companies will cover all or some of the cost, others will not provide any cover. A person can check their insurance policy before considering acupuncture treatment.

Arthritis presents a unique set of symptoms for each individual. As such, people typically manage the disease using a combination of treatments.

Scientific evidence suggests acupuncture may offer some symptom relief and improve the quality of life for those with arthritis. Although scientists have not identified the exact mechanism behind these effects, some suggest that acupuncture may trigger the release of pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory chemicals within the body.

While scientists may never be able to explain exactly how acupuncture works, individuals with arthritis may consider this complementary therapy worth trying.