Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a progressive disease that attacks the myelin sheath, the protective coating around the nerves. Some people with MS may consider using acupuncture alongside medical treatment to try to manage their symptoms.
A person with MS may experience impairments in their movement, speech, and other bodily functions as the disease progresses. There is no cure for MS, but treatment may reduce the severity of symptoms.
One potential complementary treatment for MS is acupuncture. Acupuncture is a form of East Asian medicine based on the body’s life force or energy flow, called qi, which moves through pathways in the body known as meridians.
According to practitioners, if a person’s qi becomes blocked or unbalanced, they may get ill. Practitioners use fine needles on key points of the body to try to trigger the body’s natural healing response and help restore a state of balance.
In this article, we examine whether people with MS can get acupuncture and whether it can improve the symptoms. We also look at the benefits and risks of acupuncture for people with MS.
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, people with MS generally tolerate acupuncture well when a licensed acupuncturist performs the procedure. Experts consider acupuncture to be safe and have fewer side effects than many other well-established therapies.
The organization notes that there were just 216 reports of acupuncture complications worldwide over a 20-year period. These were generally associated with poorly trained acupuncturists.
People may sometimes use acupuncture as a complementary treatment, which means that they use it with traditional therapies and medications. Doctors do not consider acupuncture a potential cure for MS.
According to research, acupuncture may affect the following symptoms of MS:
MRI scans have shown that acupuncture at specific sites on the body produces changes in brain activity. Some of these changes occur in areas of the brain that play a role in pain, and they appear when a person feels pain-relieving effects.
However, this is not clear evidence that acupuncture relieves pain. Scientists have attempted to explain why some people may report pain relief from acupuncture. Some suggest that the process may release chemical messengers in the body that decrease pain. Others think that it produces a placebo effect, which means that it works because people believe the procedure to be beneficial.
However, the authors of an
A small study notes that about 85% of people with MS report impaired gait as a symptom that significantly limits their daily activities.
In the study, 95% of the participants who received acupuncture were able to walk a 25-feet distance more quickly afterward, compared with only 45% of those who received “sham acupuncture.”
Researchers need to complete additional, larger scale studies to confirm the effects of acupuncture on gait in people with MS.
There is a lack of large studies providing evidence of acupuncture’s effects on the mental health of people with MS.
However, in a small pilot study, participants with MS who had acupuncture reported a significant decrease in:
They also noted improvements in:
- overall health-promoting behaviors
- self-efficacy in health promotion
- quality of life
- social functioning
A small preliminary study in Canada suggested that acupuncture may improve both incontinence and bladder urgency in people with MS. However, the effect varied depending on the acupuncturist performing the procedure.
A person will usually attend one or two weekly sessions of acupuncture.
How long it takes for the treatment to work varies among individuals. Those who do experience benefits usually find that they occur within six to ten sessions.
However, people with MS or other chronic diseases may need a longer course of treatment.
The general lack of research on the effects of acupuncture on MS means that researchers need to complete larger and higher quality studies to determine whether this practice could have adverse effects on people with this condition.
Despite a lack of evidence to make claims for or against acupuncture for people with MS, experts generally consider the practice safe when a licensed professional carries it out using sterile, single-use needles.
People with MS should discuss acupuncture with their healthcare team and ask about the possibility of the therapy affecting the immune system. Both MS and inflammation are associated with overactive immune functions.
Researchers have associated acupuncture with inhibiting, stimulating, and having no effect on the immune system. Due to these mixed results, further studies are necessary.
- hepatitis and HIV, if practitioners use unsterile needles
- infection in people with prosthetic or damaged heart valves
- bruising or bleeding complications in people who take blood-thinning medications
- abnormal heart rhythms, in people with pacemakers who undergo electro-acupuncture
In addition, moxibustion — which can take place alongside acupuncture and involves burning mugwort leaves close to the skin — can produce fumes that may worsen asthma.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates acupuncture needles and considers them medical devices. The labeling and manufacture of the needles need to meet specific standards, and these items must be nontoxic, sterile, and labeled as only suitable for use in acupuncture. Additionally, only licensed practitioners may use them.
Experts consider it safe for people with MS to have acupuncture, and they do not link it to relapses or worsening symptoms.
Small studies and anecdotal reports claim that acupuncture may help with some symptoms of MS, including pain, gait, mental health, and bladder function.
However, there is a need for more research before scientists can make an evidence-based claim about the effects of acupuncture on MS.
There is no evidence to show that acupuncture makes MS worse, although its interactions with the immune system are unknown.
Acupuncture can, in rare cases, lead to complications, including diseases from unsterile needles, infection in people with damaged heart valves, and bleeding and bruising in people who take blood-thinning medications. However, these issues are unlikely to occur if a person gets treatment from a licensed professional.