Acupuncture as Treatment for Multiple Sclerosis

Close up of acupuncture
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Acupuncture is an ancient medical practice that has evolved as a popular therapy for many conditions, like chemotherapy-related nausea, postoperative dental pain, stroke rehabilitation, headaches, and menstrual cramps. 

In terms of multiple sclerosis, small studies have shown that acupuncture can reduce pain and improve mood, bladder problems, and spasms. But there are no large clinical trials to date, which makes interpreting the true benefit of acupuncture difficult. In addition, because acupuncture could stimulate a person's immune system, there is some worry that it could make a person's MS worse — so, don't be too surprised if others within the MS community are a bit more wary of acupuncture compared to other complementary therapies, like massage or yoga. 

How Does Acupuncture Work?

Acupuncture entails placing needles on specific parts of the body. The placing of needles is believed to release chemicals throughout the body, which can alter how the brain and other organs work, and alleviate pain. In fact, there are various theories within the acupuncture world that discuss how the placement of the needle “unblocks” the body’s vital energy, called qi or chi. Chinese medicine does not contain the concept of a nervous system, rather relies on theories of how the vital energy moves through a system of pathways (called “meridians”) in the body.

While part of this increased energy flow may be due to a stimulation of the immune system, other scientists suggest that acupuncture may block or have no effect on the immune system—the scientific data is just not there yet to say which way for sure.

What Is the Concern in Undergoing Acupuncture If You Have MS?

The symptoms of MS occur as a result of a person's immune system attacking myelin, the protective sheath that insulates nerve fibers, also called axons. Scientists now believe that these immune cells eventually attack the axons as well. Due to damaged and destroyed myelin and axons, nerve cells cannot communicate properly with each other. So, depending on which nerve pathways are affected, a person can have a wide variety of symptoms, like numbness and tingling, blurry vision, and muscle weakness. 

Because acupuncture may stimulate the immune system, there is some concern that acupuncture could actually worsen a person's MS by activating the very immune cells that are attacking a person's own myelin and axons.

Is It OK for Me to Undergo Acupuncture If I Have MS?

At this point, there is simply no good scientific evidence to say that acupuncture helps prevent MS relapses or disease progression—only that it may help some people with their MS symptoms, based on small studies. 

That being said, acupuncture is considered a safe and well-tolerated procedure, so it's really a personal decision at this point. If you find it helps your symptoms, go for it. Alternatively, if it makes your MS symptoms worse, stop. 

Talk with your neurologist too about his or her insight, as this may help you determine whether it's the right therapy for you. In addition, it's important to remember that acupuncture, like other complementary therapies, should be used in addition to your MS disease-modifying therapies, not as an alternative. 

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Article Sources

  • Namjooyan F, Ghanavati R, Majdinasab N, Jokari S, & Janbozorgi M. Uses of complementary and alternative medicine in multiple sclerosis. J Tradit Complement Med. 2014 Jul-Sep;4(3):145-52.
  • National MS Society. (2014). Acupuncture and MS: The Basic Facts