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Johns Hopkins Health Alert

Relieving Pain of Rheumatoid Arthritis with Acupuncture

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Chinese researchers believe that acupuncture can reduce joint tenderness in people with rheumatoid arthritis. Should you try it? Johns Hopkins offers bottom-line advice.

Rheumatoid arthritis, the most common form of inflammatory arthritis, dramatically limits movement and function as well as causing damage to cartilage and bone. For the estimated 1.3 million Americans with rheumatoid arthritis, the inflammation causes pain, stiffness, swelling, and damage to a variety of joints.

Even though researchers have questioned the utility of acupuncture over the years, acupuncture is a potentially viable adjunctive therapy for arthritis pain, and it is rapidly gaining favor in the western world.

When an acupuncturist inserts thin needles into a person’s skin at any of 2,000 carefully defined pressure points, Qi (pronounced chi, it means "life force”) is restored throughout the various meridians, or channels, within the human body. If Qi is at optimum flow, the body is harmonized with the universal forces of yin and yang (emblematic of balance), and the patient is pain-free and physically healthy.

What’s the evidence? At a meeting of the Association of Rheumatology Health Professionals, Lai-Shan Tam, M.D., Associate Professor, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, presented his randomized, placebo-controlled acupuncture study (the best kind of medical trial).

Dr. Tam and his colleagues randomly assigned 7 male and 29 female patients (58 years old, on average) with rheumatoid arthritis that was unresponsive to other therapies to one of three acupuncture/placebo groups. The first group of 12 subjects received electro-acupuncture, in which pulsating electrical currents are sent through the acupuncture needles to stimulate target areas. The second group of test subjects was given traditional acupuncture, while the remaining 12 patients received placebo needles.

At the end of the acupuncture sessions, the researchers noted that:

  • Those receiving electro-acupuncture had experienced a significant reduction in the number of tender joints and a measurable decrease in pain, stiffness, and swelling.
  • The traditional acupuncture group experienced benefits but at a diminished rate.
  • Those in the placebo group saw no change.

 

"The patient’s comfort is as important as relieving the disease itself,” says Dr. Tam, "so, while the results were not as positive as had been hoped, this does show that acupuncture, either electro- or traditional, when used in conjunction with disease modifying agents, may still provide beneficial pain relief for those with otherwise intractable rheumatoid arthritis.”

The bottom line: If you have rheumatoid arthritis, do not stop taking medications that actually treat the underlying causes of rheumatoid arthritis in favor of acupuncture. If you have rheumatoid arthritis (or osteoarthritis) and are thinking about acupuncture for pain relief, here are some important tips:

  • Make sure that your physician and acupuncturist is involved in planning the duration and specifics of your treatment.
  • Use acupuncture as an adjunctive therapy in addition to standard arthritis treatments -- not in lieu of them.
  • Be certain that your acupuncturist uses disposable needles as required by law.

 

 

Posted in Arthritis on March 18, 2008
Reviewed September 2011


Medical Disclaimer: This information is not intended to substitute for the advice of a physician. Click here for additional information: Johns Hopkins Health Alerts Disclaimer


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Health Alerts registered users may post comments and share experiences here at their own discretion. We regret that questions on individual health concerns to the Johns Hopkins editors cannot be answered in this space.

The views expressed here do not constitute medical advice, and do not represent the position of Johns Hopkins Medicine or Remedy Health Media, LLC, which has no responsibility for any comments posted on this site.


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