Acupuncture for Treating Lupus

Possible Treatment for Lupus Pain and Fatigue

Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that usually requires lifetime treatment for control of its effects. Along with medical treatment, many people with lupus use complementary and alternative treatment (CAM), such as acupuncture.

When you have lupus, a disordered immune system attacks certain tissues in your body.

It most often affects one or more of the following:

  • Joints
  • Skin
  • Heart
  • Lungs
  • Blood cells
  • Kidneys
  • Nervous system

Pain and fatigue are among the most common symptoms of lupus, and the condition can also cause hair loss, a facial rash, sensitivity to light, and more.

Acupuncture as a lupus treatment hasn’t received a great deal of attention from researchers, but some early studies show promising results.

Potential Benefits of Acupuncture for Lupus

Verywell / Jessica Olah

How Acupuncture Works

Acupuncture is used to relieve symptoms of a multitude of illnesses. It involves the placement of extremely thin needles—about the width of a hair—in specific places around the body.

Acupuncture has been practiced in China, as part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), for thousands of years. The Eastern belief is that acupuncture restores the proper flow of energy, or “chi,” through your body, stimulates healing, and aids in relaxation.

Western researchers have different theories about how acupuncture might work:

  • It may impact the autonomic nervous system, which regulates many functions that maintain your body's stable condition (such as blood flow and temperature).
  • It may make your brain release endorphins, which are natural pain relievers.
  • It may stimulate the lymphatic system.
  • It may stimulate the central nervous system (CNS) to release certain chemicals into your brain, spinal cord, and muscles that promote healing.

It's possible that more than one of those theories contributes to the effects of acupuncture.

Over the past few decades, acupuncture has gained acceptance in much of the Western medical community.

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Acupuncture for Lupus

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), studies show that acupuncture may help ease many types of chronic pain.

Some research suggests that acupuncture may be beneficial for treating autoimmune disease in general, possibly by stimulating the lymphatic system, which plays an important part in your immune function and is believed to be dysfunctional in autoimmune disease.

Looking at the symptom of pervasive and persistent fatigue in lupus, a review of studies found some evidence that acupuncture may relieve fatigue in some people with this disease. Other interventions—exercise, diet, phototherapy, plus behavioral and psychological approaches also reduced fatigue.

Another review found evidence that acupuncture may reduce the pain of lupus by more than 30%. That pain reduction was also true of the control group, but reviewers point out that the “control” method used also involved inserting needles into the skin, which may actually have provided a therapeutic benefit.

A case study of a woman with lupus reported that acupuncture:

  • Reduced pain
  • Improved sleep quality
  • Improved health-related quality of life

Another case report focusing on the Eastern view of acupuncture’s effect on energy flow states followed a woman with lupus, who had proteinuria (high amounts of protein in her urine) as a result of lupus-associated kidney inflammation.

Researchers say the woman experienced:

  • Less pain and stiffness
  • Reduced hair loss
  • Less protein in her urine
  • An improved mental state

Thus far, large, high-quality studies of acupuncture for lupus haven’t been performed. These early results are encouraging, though, and likely will lead to more research that may give us better information about this treatment option.

Getting Acupuncture

When you go in for an acupuncture session, you’ll lie on a massage table and the acupuncturist will insert needles into specific sites around your body. Sometimes the needles in certain located are twisted after they are inserted.

Most people feel a tiny prick or an achy sensation when the needles are first inserted, and this usually goes away quickly. If it doesn’t, let the practitioner know.

The needles are then left in for a while, typically between 10 and 30 minutes, while you’re left to relax. The acupuncturist will then remove the needles—removal is typically a painless process.

Some people feel relaxed after acupuncture, while others feel energized. If you feel strange or have unpleasant symptoms, tell the practitioner.

Possible Side Effects

According to the NIH, acupuncture is associated with few side effects when it’s properly performed by a licensed acupuncturist.

Side effects may include:

  • Bruising
  • Bleeding
  • Pain
  • Skin rashes
  • Allergic reactions
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting

Side effects from improper treatment can include:

  • Infections from non-sterile needles
  • Punctured organs
  • Collapsed lungs
  • CNS injury

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates acupuncture needles and requires that they are manufactured to meet certain standards, must be sterile for use, and are used for single-use only.

Finding an Acupuncturist

When you’re looking for an acupuncturist, you want to make sure they’re licensed. Look for the title "LAc," which stands for a licensed acupuncturist. If possible, try to find someone who’s knowledgeable about lupus and any other health problems you may have.

Your healthcare provider or other medical providers may be able to refer you to an acupuncturist they’re familiar with. In addition, several organizations can help you find a licensed practitioner in your area:

Will Insurance Cover It?

Don’t end up with surprise expenses. Check with your insurance company to see whether it covers acupuncture and, if so, whether there’s a list of practitioners that participate in your health plan.

A Word From Verywell

If you’re interested in trying acupuncture for lupus, the first step is having a conversation with your healthcare provider. They can help you determine any special risks you may face and discuss the benefits you should realistically expect to see.

Don’t expect acupuncture to replace your current treatments; instead, think of it as an addition to your therapeutic regimen that may help you control symptoms your medications don’t fully relieve.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Schwartz N, Chalasani MLS, Li TM, Feng Z, Shipman WD, Lu TT. Lymphatic function in autoimmune diseasesFront Immunol. 2019;10:519. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2019.00519

  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Acupuncture.

  4. National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Acupuncture: In depth.

  5. del Pino-Sedeño T, Trujillo-Martín MM, Ruiz-Irastorza G, et al. Effectiveness of nonpharmacologic interventions for decreasing fatigue in adults with systemic lupus erythematosus: a systematic reviewArthritis Care Res (Hoboken). 2016;68(1):141-148. doi:10.1002/acr.22675

  6. Greco CM, Nakajima C, Manzi S. Updated review of complementary and alternative medicine treatments for systemic lupus erythematosusCurr Rheumatol Rep. 2013;15(11):378. doi:10.1007/s11926-013-0378-3

  7. Mooventhan A, Nivethitha L. Effects of acupuncture and massage on pain, quality of sleep and health related quality of life in patient with systemic lupus erythematosusJ Ayurveda Integr Med. 2014;5(3):186-189. doi:10.4103/0975-9476.140484

  8. Huang WL. Energy alterations and treatment in systemic lupus erythematosus patients with altered proteinuria. 2019;4(2):22-32.

  9. Xu S, Wang L, Cooper E, et al. Adverse events of acupuncture: a systematic review of case reportsEvid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013;2013:581203. doi:10.1155/2013/581203

By Adrienne Dellwo
Adrienne Dellwo is an experienced journalist who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and has written extensively on the topic.