February 8, 2016

Rheumatoid Arthritis & Acupuncture

Rheumatoid Arthritis is one of a family of conditions typically known simply as “arthritis”.  All of these conditions involve painful joint inflammation that impedes mobility and reduces the quality of life. Rheumatoid Arthritis is different than other forms in one particularly important way: it is considered to be an autoimmune disease.

An autoimmune disease involves a basic ‘confusion’ in the body’s immune system. Designed to ward off foreign and disease causing elements, the immune system in autoimmune disease attacks natural body elements believing them to be foreign and pathological. In Rheumatoid Arthritis, the immune system mistakenly targets the synovium, or lining of the joints. The result is inflammation and eventual destruction of the joint’s cartilage and bone. The condition is considered progressive and degenerative.

Rheumatoid Arthritis is characterized by the following although this list is not all-inclusive:

  • Awakening with stiffness in the joints such as in wrists, ankles, fingers, elbows and knees.
  • Pain, tenderness, stiffness, warmth and swelling in the joint
  • Nodules under the skin
  • Limited range of motion of the joints

Treatment typically involves medication such as anti-inflammatory drugs, topical pain relievers, prescription painkillers or corticosteroids. Many people suffer harsh side-effects from these types of medications used over a prolonged period.


Acupuncture has successfully been used in the treatment of Rheumatoid Arthritis. Research has demonstrated that acupuncture can reduce pain, tenderness and inflammation (1) as well as boost the immune system. Acupuncture is also a safe alternative to medications that can have adverse long-term effects.

One study demonstrated acupuncture to significantly low tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) and vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF). Both of these are associated with chronic inflammation. TNF-alpha appears to play a pivotal role in the chronic inflammation and joint destruction that characterizes RA. That’s why so many of the biologic medications such as Enbrel [etnaercept], Humira [adalimumab] and Remicade [inflixumab] target TNF-alpha (2).

Acupuncture has dramatically gained in acceptance as an adjunct treatment for Rheumatoid Arthritis. In a 2010 Mayo Clinic survey, for example, 54 percent of rheumatologists said they would recommend acupuncture.

Chinese herbalism, another element of Chinese medicine, has also proven effective when combined with acupuncture in the treatment of Rheumatoid Arthritis. A study of 122 patients with rheumatoid arthritis was done in which the group was randomly divided into an acupuncture with herbs group and into a group taking pharmaceutical medications for the condition. The overall effective rate for the acupuncture with herbs group was 95.08%. This drug group had an overall effective rate of 68.85%. Additionally, there was a significantly lower adverse effect rate in the acupuncture and herb group (3).

 Louisville acupunctureIf you are in the Louisville area and interested in the use of acupuncture and/or Chinese herbalism to treat this or similiar conditions, you can discuss options with Jeffrey Russell at Abacus Chinese Medicine–Louisville Acupuncture and Chinese Herbalism. (502) 299-8900.
Works Cited
 1. Lai-Shan TamPing-Chung LeungTena K LiLang Zhang and Edmund K Li. Acupuncture in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis: a double-blind controlled pilot study. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 7:35, 2007. 
 2. Liu J, Liu R. The potential role of Chinese medicine inamerlirorating extra-articular manifestations of rheumatoid arthritis. Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine, 17(10): 735-7.
 3. Wang, Zizhen. Clinical observation on treating rheumatoid arthritis with the Guizhi Shaoyao Zhimu decoction plus acupuncture. Clinical Journal of Chinese Medicine, 6:4 (2014): 89-90.