How Acupuncture Can Help Your RA

by Lene Andersen, MSW Patient Advocate

Many people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) rely on a number of treatments and techniques to deal with the symptoms and pain. Many of these are what is called alternative or complementary medicines. Acupuncture is one such treatment that some use to deal with the symptoms of RA, including chronic pain.

Chinese traditional medicine, acupuncture diagram.

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a form of treatment that originated in traditional Chinese medicine thousands of years ago. When you get acupuncture, very thin needles are inserted at different points in the body along “meridians” or channels of energy called qi, pronounced chi. Acupuncture needles are usually inserted ¼-to-1 inch into the body, but because they are so thin, you either feel nothing or at most a slight sting.

yin and yang, acupuncture needles, qi energy concept in alternative medicine.

Background: traditional Chinese medicine

In traditional Chinese medicine, qi (energy) is uniquely tied to the concepts of yin and yang, which have different properties. For instance, yin is cold, moist, and dark, and yang is imperial, dry, and hot. My acupuncturist told me that RA is considered originating from damp heat. The goal of a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine is to make sure that you will experience good health, which means your energy is balanced and can flow freely. They try to achieve this through various treatments, including acupuncture.

Doctor holding acupuncture needle.

How the West sees acupuncture

I still remember my first experience of acupuncture, back in the mid-1970s. At that time, medical professionals basically ridiculed the practice, likening it to snake oil. But over the last four decades, much has changed. Studies have shown that acupuncture affects both the central and peripheral nervous systems and can cause the release of chemicals in the body that can relieve pain.

Couple happily walking outdoors.

The effects of acupuncture

In addition to pain relief, acupuncture can also have additional beneficial effects. This includes alleviating stress, reducing the effects of chemotherapy in people with cancer, improving the success of in vitro fertilization, encouraging neural responses in areas of the brain deactivated by Parkinson’s, and helping with sleep. Additional studies indicate that acupuncture may induce anti-inflammatory effects, which is a factor in the development of a number of different conditions, including heart disease and cancer. At present, researchers are not quite sure how it accomplishes this.

acupuncture for wrist and hand pain.

More on the anti-inflammatory effects of acupuncture

Acupuncture has also been shown to ease the symptoms of RA. One study has shown that this treatment reduces both tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF alpha) and vascular endothelial growth factor, both connected to chronic inflammation, such as what happens in RA. In fact, a number of biologic medications are designed to suppress TNF-α. Other studies have indicated that acupuncture can reduce inflammation markers, including erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) and C-reactive protein (CRP).

Preparing dinner with a smile.

Acupuncture and RA

A large review of studies concluded that acupuncture can be beneficial for RA, with no adverse effects, and that it “can improve function and quality of life.” Many rheumatologists are, in fact, recommending that their RA patients use it as a supplementary treatment to deal with symptoms of inflammation and pain. However, it is important to know that as with almost all treatments, acupuncture doesn’t work for approximately 20 percent of those who try it.

Skilled acupuncturist, no pain, no marks.

Are there risks to acupuncture?

There are few risks of acupuncture when applied by a skilled practitioner. Common side effects include slight bruising and a bit of soreness where the needles were inserted. Some people may also experience mild dizziness and, very rarely, nausea. As well, acupuncture may be prohibited if you have certain medical conditions, including bleeding disorders, or if you are taking blood thinners, have a pacemaker, or are pregnant. Check with your doctor first.

looking up acupuncturist on smartphone.

How to find an acupuncturist

Acupuncture is no longer just provided by doctors of traditional Chinese medicine, but also by many other types of health care providers. This includes naturopaths, chiropractors, physical therapists, medical doctors, nurse practitioners, and more. Look for someone who is licensed under your state’s regulations, has experience working with your condition, and ideally, comes recommended by someone you trust.

Paying concept, pulling money out of wallet.

The cost of acupuncture

Typical fees for acupuncture can be as high as $100 for the first consultation, with follow-up visits around $50-70. This can become quite expensive, especially since acupuncture treatment usually consists of several treatments. When you have a chronic illness, such as RA, acupuncture treatment may even be ongoing in order to have the best effects. Not all insurance plans cover acupuncture, so make sure you check before you make an appointment.

Acupuncturist consulting with patient.

What to expect when you have acupuncture

In your first appointment, the practitioner will it take a medical history and likely do a physical exam. To receive the treatment, you will lie down, possibly remove your clothes, and put on a gown. The acupuncturist will insert sterile needles into various points in your body, some in different areas than where your symptoms are. Some acupuncturist also use a slight electrical current attached to the needles. The needles will be left in for up to 20 minutes, during which time you will lie still and relax.

acupuncturist performing her job.

How does acupuncture feel?

Aside from possibly a small pinch, you should not feel anything when the acupuncture needles are inserted. While the needles are in, you may start to feel very relaxed or sleepy — go with it. The more you can help your body relax, the better the treatment might work. Afterward, the feeling of relaxation and lowered pain levels will continue for several days or more. Very rarely, a treatment can make you feel more pain. If that’s the case, make sure to mention it to your practitioner so they can adjust the treatment accordingly.

Lene  Andersen, MSW
Meet Our Writer
Lene Andersen, MSW

Lene Andersen is an author, health and disability advocate, and photographer living in Toronto. Lene (pronounced Lena) has lived with rheumatoid arthritis since she was four years old and uses her experience to help others with chronic illness. She has written several books, including Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain, and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain, as well as the award-winning blog, The Seated View. Lene serves on HealthCentral's Health Advocates Advisory Board, and is a Social Ambassador for the RAHealthCentral on Facebook page, She is also one of HealthCentral's Live Bold, Live Now heroes — watch her incredible journey of living with RA.