Acupuncture for Arthritis

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Some people may find relief when they use acupuncture for arthritis. Acupuncturists use this traditional form of Chinese medicine to help control the flow of qi (energy) in the body.

Practitioners of acupuncture believe that various illnesses or conditions can block a patient’s qi, which can result in stiffness or pain. During an appointment, acupuncturists will gently insert long, thin needles under a patient’s skin to stimulate qi.

So, can acupuncture actually help arthritis discomfort or inflammation? Medical professionals need more research about the extent of acupuncture’s effect on people with arthritis, but some studies have reported that some people feel less pain after their acupuncture treatment.

While acupuncture is not a proven solution to chronic illnesses, people with arthritis may find it to be a helpful complement to their medication, physical therapy, or other conventional treatments to cope with their symptoms. 

Three acupuncture needles in a person's knee
 GlobalStock / Getty Images

What It Is

Over the last couple of decades, acupuncture has grown in popularity in the United States. However, the practice is ancient. Chinese people have used acupuncture for thousands of years. Traditionally, the thin needles were thought to help a person’s energy flow throughout their body and, therefore, promote healing.

Some researchers theorize that acupuncture works by stimulating a patient’s nervous system, as many people describe feeling warm or tingly sensations during acupuncture. When the needles hit certain points in the nervous system, they may release endorphins, which are hormones that evoke feelings of euphoria and reduce pain. These endorphins can help provide temporary pain relief.

However, professionals continue to study the efficacy of acupuncture as an arthritis treatment. The American College of Rheumatology has listed acupuncture as a “conditional recommendation” for osteoarthritis. People may consider consulting their doctor about including acupuncture in their normal treatment plan.

According to researchers Pei-Chi Chou and Heng-Yi Chu, of all the conditions that acupuncture has been used to treat, arthritis is one of the most common. Before 2010, around 41% of people with rheumatoid arthritis in Israel sought acupuncture.

But if arthritis impacts the joints, how might acupuncture, a treatment that uses your nervous system, help your sore neck or knees? When acupuncture releases endorphins, those hormones can reduce inflammation, including the inflammation that may make your joints sore or stiff.

How It's Done

At your appointment, you will consult your acupuncturist to discuss which joints are hurting and what kind of pain you have. However, your actual treatment will probably take less than 30 minutes.

Depending on where your acupuncturist will place the needles in your body, you will sit or lay down. Then, the acupuncturist will gently insert needles in pressure points. In traditional Chinese medicine, there are over 300 acupuncture pressure points, with each point corresponding to a different part of your body.

Some people avoid acupuncture because they are afraid of needles. However, you may choose to keep your eyes closed or avoid looking at them. Acupuncture needles are as thin as a single human hair, much smaller than most other medical needles.

Some patients will have several needles during a session, and others may have over a dozen needles. The number of needles and the placement of the needles will differ depending on your specific pain management goals.

The sensation of getting acupuncture will vary from person to person. Some people don’t feel the needles at all; some feel a mild pinch. If you feel pain from the needles, you should tell your acupuncturist right away.

The acupuncturist may carefully twist or move the needles. The needles normally stay in your skin for about 10 to 20 minutes.

You may want to research the different types of acupuncture to decide what would work best for them. Some acupuncturists incorporate herbs or aromatherapy in their treatments. Others will warm up the needles before they insert them.

Another option is electroacupuncture. In electroacupuncture, your acupuncturist will insert the needles and then use the metal needles to conduct a small electrical current through your skin. This method may increase the stimulation to your pressure points to produce a more intense sensation than regular acupuncture. 

Benefits

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health outlines several potential benefits of acupuncture. These include but are not limited to the following: 

  • Headache and migraine relief
  • Decreased joint pain 
  • Decreased inflammation 
  • Less stiffness 
  • A sense of energy or contentment after the treatment 

However, consider these benefits with a grain of salt. Some studies indicate that while acupuncture does help alleviate a patient’s knee pain, for instance, it’s not a long-term solution for arthritis or any other disease. While acupuncture may improve arthritis symptoms, it tends to be more beneficial for larger joints and the spine rather than for smaller joints such as the hands. Regular treatments are necessary to maintain any clinical benefit derived from this form of therapy.

Other medical professionals wonder if acupuncture works as a placebo. With these disclaimers in mind, people may want to try acupuncture to see if it works for them for short-term pain management. 

Potential Risks

Acupuncture may not work well for everyone. Certain patients should avoid this procedure:

  • People who bleed heavily may bruise or bleed during acupuncture.
  • People with pacemakers shouldn’t use electroacupuncture because the electrical current can interrupt your pacemaker. However, people with pacemakers may be able to try regular acupuncture with their doctor’s approval.
  • If you are pregnant, you may want to avoid the procedure since some acupuncturists use mugwort, an herb which may result in pregnancy risks or complications. 

You should always check with a doctor before starting acupuncture or any other medical procedure. Additionally, acupuncture is meant to enhance, not replace, conventional medical treatment.

A Word From Verywell


While acupuncture isn’t a solution for solving diseases, it may help you cope with some of your arthritis aches and pains. It’s normal to be worried about trying acupuncture or any other medical procedure. Honestly communicate these concerns, such as a fear of needles, to your acupuncturist so that they can address your worries.

If you aren’t sure how to get started, consider checking your insurance to see which types of acupuncture and which facilities near you are included in your plan. Some acupuncturists offer discounts, sliding-scale payment options, or other financial assistance for those without insurance coverage.

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