Acupuncture: A Treatment Tool for Lupus?


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Treatments for systemic lupus erythematosus vary by patient and by healthcare practitioner, as one method can work well for one individual and have little effect on another. So, it is not uncommon for someone to explore various ways to treat her symptoms – especially pain caused by inflammation, a hallmark of the disease.

Some of these methods, such as acupuncture, are considered part of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). They have been used by various cultures for many generations. CAM is defined as a group of diverse medical and healthcare systems, practices and products that are not presently considered a part of conventional medicine.

It is important to note, however, that the Lupus Foundation of America does not recommend medications, products or methods not approved by the Food and Drug Administration or the American College of Rheumatology, further stating on its website, “remedies that have not undergone the scrutiny of scientific investigation lack the crucial information and data necessary to enable physicians to make sound recommendations regarding substances.”

Before exploring any new treatment option, it is best to talk with your healthcare provider.


Many Westerners’ first encounter with acupuncture is by way of popular culture. But the actual discipline and the seriousness with which professional practitioners approach the method is very serious.

The practice originated in China more than 2,000 years ago and continues to grow in popularity in the United States and abroad. Although most equate acupuncture with the insertion of hair-thin needles into the skin, the term actually describes many procedures involving the stimulation of specific points on the body (acupoints) to help improve health and well-being.

Some of those techniques include stimulation with heated herbs, magnets, mild electrical current, manual pressure (acupressure), and low-frequency lasers.

Acupuncture is based on the ancient Chinese theory that an essential life energy called qi (pronounced "chee") flows through the body along invisible channels, called meridians. When the flow is blocked or out of balance, illness or pain results. Stimulation of acupoints is thought to correct the flow and restore balance, optimize health, and block pain.

The science behind acupuncture suggests that acupuncture may be associated with neurotransmitter activity in the muscles, spinal cord, and brain that trigger the body's release of endorphins ("feel good" chemicals.)

An interesting side note: Researchers studying acupuncture's effect on patients with migraine headaches discovered that patients who underwent clinical acupuncture and those who underwent "sham acupuncture," in which needles are placed randomly on the body, reported similar outcomes. Both groups reported a reduction in headaches. Those researchers attributed the outcome to "nonspecific physiological effects of needling, to a powerful placebo effect, or to a combination of both." The research was conducted by the Centre for Complementary Medicine Research and reported in the May 2005 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.


Research studies have shown that acupuncture can reduce nausea and vomiting after surgery and chemotherapy, as well as relieve pain, particularly that associated with osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia. It also reportedly helps ease depression and irritable bowel syndrome connected to arthritis.

Important to lupus patients, however, is a 1997 meta-analysis of 17 studies that discovered that acupuncture seems to be less effective at relieving pain associated with inflammatory diseases such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and local and progressive systemic scleroderma.

Get the Right Help

On the flip side, the body of research on the topic suggests that acupuncture relieves pain for some. If acupuncture is something you're interested in trying, speak with your healthcare provider before starting treatment. It's important, too, that you seek acupuncture treatment from a professional; the treatment is safest when performed by a reputable provider using sterile, disposable needles.

The American Board of Medical Acupuncture certifies clinician acupuncturists, and the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine certifies non-clinician acupuncturists. Certification comprises passing a standardized exam and a demonstration of adequate training.

The FDA regulates acupuncture needles for use by licensed practitioners, requiring that needles be manufactured and labeled according to certain standards. Needles must be sterile, nontoxic, and labeled for single use by qualified practitioners only.

Getting Treated

Acupuncture needles are metallic, solid, and very thin. Those that have undergone acupuncture report experiencing little or no pain from needle insertion. Others report feeling energized during the procedure; still, others say they are calmed and relaxed. Your experience will likely vary from that of a friend.

Most complications related to acupuncture are due to inadequate sterilization of needles and from improper delivery of treatments. Practitioners should use a new set of disposable needles taken from a sealed package for each patient, and they should swab treatment sites with alcohol before inserting needles. Make sure your practitioner follows these guidelines.

Your healthcare provider should be able to refer you to a licensed practitioner. If not, websites and professional associations can direct you to an appropriate acupuncturist. Try the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture website. It has a wonderful search function that allows you to find a skilled medical acupuncturist in your area.

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Article Sources

  • Acupuncture. Arthritis Today. Horstman, Judith. Arthritis Foundation of America. May 2000.
  • Acupuncture. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.