Did you know that rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is the most common form of inflammatory arthritis? Researchers believe that, in 2016, nearly 1.5 million Americans will be affected by this painful autoimmune condition. And, women are two to three times more likely than men to have RA.
RA is not just joint stiffness and pain, as any of us might experience after an injury (or from continuous overuse). RA actually causes the immune system to attack the affected person’s joints. Sometimes, the immune system will even target other organs – notably the eyes, skin, and arteries. This chronic immune overreaction causes pain, stiffness, swelling, and joint damage. It can limit movement and impair motor function. In the most severe cases, sufferers experience not only pain, but long-term damage to their cartilage and bones.
Current Western treatment options for RA include rest, exercise, medication, and even surgery. In the most typical cases, doctors prescribe some combination of anti-inflammatory painkillers (aspirin, ibuprofen), topical pain relievers, corticosteroids, or narcotic pain relievers. They may also use prescription medications that work by interfering with – or suppressing – the immune system’s attack on the joints.
While these drugs are often effective in treating pain and other persistent RA symptoms, they can cause serious side effects, like cataracts, glaucoma, bone thinning, methotrexate pneumonia, liver failure, and kidney problems. In general, they also work to alter the body’s natural response to RA.
Chinese medicine – specifically acupuncture – has been shown in clinical trials to be a safe and effective alternative treatment for RA pain. In its most recent report on the efficacy of acupuncture for various ailments, the World Health Organization (WHO) writes:
Acupuncture is beneficial in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. While acupuncture may not improve the damage that has been done to the joints, successful pain relief has been verified in the majority of controlled studies. The action of acupuncture on inflammation and the dysfunctional immune system is also beneficial.
The WHO also stated that acupuncture is “worth considering because of the toxicity or adverse effects of conventional treatments.” This is because, “unlike corticosteroids, acupuncture… does not cause serious side-effects.”
While the WHO’s report focused specifically on traditional acupuncture, many studies have shown that electroacupuncture can also have beneficial effects for RA patients. This treatment, in which a practitioner applies a pulsating electrical current to the acupuncture needles, was created by Chinese practitioners in the 1930s. Since then, a steady stream of research has demonstrated its efficacy, particularly for the relief of chronic pain. For example, a 2014 study published in the journal Anesthesiology showed that electroacupuncture “provides effective pain management which can forestall the side effects of often-debilitating pharmaceuticals.”
The key benefit to using acupuncture to treat RA is that it is an effective, drug-free way to minimize pain. In addition to their concerning side effects – which can be debilitating in themselves – drug treatments can cause people to develop a tolerance to them over time. This almost always leads to a need for progressively higher doses, which increases the risk for severe side effects. Roughly half of all RA patients simply stop taking these medications when the side effects become intolerable (often this is less than two years after they begin drug treatment), or out of concern for their long-term health. As the WHO found, this does not happen with acupuncture.
A licensed and experienced acupuncturist will work with each patient to develop a customized treatment regimen that can be further tailored to their condition and it’s current progression. So, before you turn to medication for your RA – or to complement an ongoing and effective treatment regimen – talk to an experienced acupuncturist who can help relieve this pain and stop the attack.
This post was updated on August 19, 2016