Acupuncture is a type of Chinese traditional medicine that dates back thousands of years. Acupuncturists use fine needles in pressure points in various parts of the body. This treatment is said to:

  • reduce inflammation
  • relax the body
  • increase blood flow

It’s also believed to release endorphins. These are natural hormones that reduce the feeling of pain.

In Chinese tradition, good energy flows through “qi” (pronounced “chee”). It can be blocked by obstructions called “bi.” The needles open up the qi and remove the bi.

Most people either don’t feel the needles, or feel a very small prick when the needles are inserted. The needles are said to be thinner than a strand of hair.

Some people use acupuncture to treat joint pain, as well as headaches, back pain, and anxiety.

Since rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can cause inflammation in the joints or upper neck — and since joint inflammation can lead to pain — people with the condition may want to try acupuncture to find relief.

What are the benefits?

While acupuncture has its skeptics, there’s some scientific evidence that it can help relieve pain in people with RA.

In a study from the University of Ottawa, participants with knee pain due to RA had some relief with electroacupuncture. This type of acupuncture uses an electric current that pulsates through the needles. The participants noticed a reduction in pain both 24 hours after the treatment and four months later. However, the study points out that the sample size was too small for it to recommend eletroacupuncture as a treatment.

The Pacific College of Oriental Medicine mentions two studies that show the benefits of acupuncture and eletroacupuncture:

  • The first is a study from Russia with 16 people who had RA. Auriculo-electropuncture, which places needles in special parts of the ear, was shown to improve their condition through blood samples.
  • For the second study, 54 participants with RA received “warm needling.” This is acupuncture treatment with the use of Zhuifengsu, a Chinese herb. The study was said to be 100 percent effective, though no specific information was listed about the criteria.

Acupuncture needles can be placed all over the body. Acupuncture points don’t have to be placed exactly where you feel pain, but instead at pressure points that your acupuncturist identifies.

The acupuncturist may insert the needles in your legs, knees, arms, shoulders, and elsewhere. Focusing on these points may reduce inflammation, increase endorphins, and cause relaxation. In fact, many people fall asleep during their sessions.

What are the risks?

There are a few risks involved with acupuncture, though most researchers feel that the potential benefits outweigh these risks. Additionally, many see the risks as less serious as those associated with medication. You may experience:

  • slight soreness where the needles were placed
  • stomach upset
  • fatigue
  • slight bruising
  • lightheadedness
  • muscle twitching
  • heightened emotions

Some studies have shown that acupuncture for RA either doesn’t help or doesn’t provide enough evidence to show either way. A review of published studies from Tufts Medical Center and Tufts University School of Medicine concluded that while there were some positive outcomes, more research is needed.

An article in the journal Rheumatology notes that most of the positive trials come from China, and negative studies performed in China are rare. The authors believe that there isn’t enough evidence to support the idea that acupuncture treats RA, because the studies are too small and aren’t high quality.

Some people should avoid acupuncture, including:

  • People with bleeding disorders. You may have trouble healing where the needle was placed.
  • People who are pregnant. Some acupuncture treatments result in early labor.
  • People with heart issues. If you have a pacemaker, using acupuncture with heat or electrical impulses can cause trouble with your device.

When looking for an acupuncturist, there are a few important things to keep in mind. Find someone who is licensed, as they’ll have thorough training.

Licensed acupuncturists will also only use sterile needles. Unsterile needles can cause infection, since bacteria and viruses can get into your bloodstream. Needles should come prepackaged.

It’s also important not to replace acupuncture with any prescribed treatments from your doctor. Acupuncture has shown to work best when paired with medication.

What are some other natural treatments?

Acupuncture isn’t the only natural treatment that may help relieve pain from RA.

Alternating heat and cold can also reduce swelling, and thus decrease pain. Use ice packs for 15 minutes at a time, followed by a warm and damp towel or a heating pad.

Tai chi can also be beneficial. The slow movement of the martial art can get the blood flowing and increase flexibility. Additional exercises may be helpful as well, especially water exercise.

Supplements like fish oil my help with RA, according to some studies. It can especially be helpful in reducing morning stiffness.

Other natural treatments include:

  • biofeedback
  • magnet jewelry
  • mind-body therapies like deep breathing

Note that not all of these treatments are proven to work. Discuss with your doctor the best natural therapy to use alongside your prescribed treatment.

The takeaway

If you’re interested in trying acupuncture to relieve your RA symptoms, talk to your doctor for advice and recommendations. Some insurance plans cover acupuncture, especially for certain medical conditions. Seeking out acupuncture under your plan can also help ensure that you find someone reputable.

If you aren’t sure what’s causing your pain, be sure to get a clear diagnosis from your doctor before seeking any treatment.