Managing Arthritis

Acupuncture and Arthritis: Your Questions Answered

A woman lying down with acupuncture needles in her back

You may have heard about complementary therapies such as acupuncture to treat symptoms of arthritis.  Alison Cheung, a Registered Acupuncturist and Registered Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner in Toronto, shares her expertise to help you make informed decisions about your healthcare.

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a relatively safe approach to treating many forms of illness, including joint pain and inflammation. It involves the insertion of hair-thin needles into the body at specified points to support the body in restoring an internal balance.

Acupuncture is one of the main modalities in the practice of Chinese medicine, a holistic form of medicine built on practical experience that dates back at least 2,200 years. Chinese medicine is a regulated profession in many parts of Canada and can help address a number of different conditions.  It comprises multiple forms of intervention such as using herbs, moxibustion (the application of heat to specified points of the body by burning moxa wool, which comes from the mugwort plant) and acupuncture.

An underlying assumption of acupuncture (and Chinese medicine) is that a healthy body can recover by itself from the beginnings of illness or disease. When illness or disease appears, the body has either temporarily or chronically lost its ability to repair tissue, restore organ function, and / or ward off external contagious illness (ie: lowered immunity). Acupuncture (often combined with moxibustion) can help restore proper circulation in ‘blocked’ areas of the body to relieve localized pain or discomfort. Regular acupuncture treatments can also be used to strengthen the body’s weakened functions, often a result of daily stressors having taken their toll, such as excessive stress due to career, family, lack of sleep, and poor or excessive appetite.

As Chinese medicine is a holistic medicine, a detailed examination of all bodily systems is performed and a diagnosis is given before any acupuncture treatment is administered. The Chinese medicine practitioner will then use their assessment to form a treatment plan. Points are chosen and thin needles are inserted in prescribed acupuncture points to treat one or both of the following:

  • An acute problem (i.e, localized pain)

  • A systemic problem (i.e, gastrointestinal complaints, water retention in the lower body, etc.).

Who can practise acupuncture?

Acupuncture and Chinese medicine are regulated in some areas of Canada, but not all. Alberta, British Columbia, Newfoundland & Labrador, Ontario and Québec have regulated the profession of acupuncture and a person can only use the title “Acupuncturist” if they have completed the required training.  In other provinces and territories, it is important to learn about a practitioner’s education and training before making an appointment.

Acupuncture is studied and practised primarily by Registered Acupuncturists (R.Ac.) and Registered Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners (R.TCMP). To become a Registered Acupuncturist, a person must first study for a minimum of 3 years full-time (with an additional year for the R.TCMP license), focusing exclusively on acupuncture to treat a wide variety of ailments.  Practitioners also commonly study extensively in continuing education courses beyond completing their foundational education. 

What are some of the potential benefits for people living with arthritis?

Pain, inflammation, and mobility issues are all conditions commonly treated with acupuncture and moxibustion (application of heat through the burning of processed mugwort leaves). Prevention of joint deformation is another potential benefit, though acupuncture cannot reverse the effects of an already deformed joint.  Acupuncture and Chinese medicine can also help with excess weight / obesity, low energy and low or excessive appetite, which can all impact a person’s ability to successfully manage their arthritis.

Research studies have shown promising results for the use of acupuncture to manage arthritis symptoms, though limitations in study design and sample size mean that further research needs to be done to better understand the impact of acupuncture on arthritis pain and inflammation.  Based on existing evidence and because acupuncture carries a low risk of harm, acupuncture is conditionally recommended for people with arthritis. Acupuncture in combination with an arthritis medication treatment plan may help to reduce pain and improve quality of life.

What can a person expect from their first acupuncture visit?

A first visit to a trained acupuncture practitioner will begin with an initial consultation. This usually consists of 20-30 minutes of detailed questions about all aspects of your health including physical pain, discomfort, sleep, digestion, elimination, mental concentration, and emotions. Health history such as surgery, major illness, and medications are also discussed. A diagnosis is communicated by the practitioner, in which they explain the reason(s) for illness from a Chinese medicine perspective.

Once treatment begins, the practitioner may use anywhere from 5-20 pins (acupuncture needles), inserting them at various points in the head and body to treat either the acute problem, a systemic pattern of dis-ease, or both. Moxibustion can be applied either before, after or during the acupuncture portion of the treatment. The total length of the actual treatment typically lasts one hour, though this can vary. 

How many treatments are required?  Are there any side effects?

The number of treatments required to treat arthritis varies, based on a few factors:

  • How long the patient has been experiencing symptoms 

  • How quickly the patient responds to each treatment 

  • The overall condition of health of the patient 

Patients should plan to attend treatments once (at a minimum) to twice per week, for a course of 10 sessions. Some patients get results very quickly and need fewer sessions, while others with serious conditions may take up to a year or more to achieve the full benefit of the treatment.

In terms of side-effects and risks, these should be explained by your practitioner before your first treatment. Common risks include the following:

  • Bruising - this occurs occasionally, especially with patients who tend to bruise more easily

  • Fainting - if the patient has not eaten properly the day of treatment, or if they are extremely nervous about receiving acupuncture

  • Temporary fatigue - this may arise after treatment and is not indicative of a negative outcome. Regardless, it is worthy to mention to your acupuncturist if you experience greater than normal fatigue after your treatment.

The most serious risk is pneumothorax, a collapsed lung due to needle puncture. Pneumothorax is an exceedingly rare risk of acupuncture, when a patient receives needles at the following areas: upper and mid-back, top of shoulders, chest and diaphragm.

Seeking acupuncture from a thoroughly trained Registered Acupuncturist (R.Ac) is highly recommended to limit these risks.

Before trying any new treatment, including acupuncture, it is important to speak with your doctor to make sure it is a suitable addition to your arthritis treatment plan.