The idea of sticking needles in your body as a remedy for pain may seem like it would hurt more than help. But acupuncture is gaining attention as a successful alternative arthritis treatment, especially for those with knee arthritis. Recent studies point to an encouraging “risk-benefit” profile of acupuncture for arthritis pain relief, drawing many to this ancient Chinese healing modality.
“The features of arthritis are pain and inflammation, which is why Western patients are often put on non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications or steroids,” says Lixing Lao, MD, PhD, LAc, director of Traditional Chinese Medicine research at the University of Maryland Center for Integrative Medicine. “Acupuncture can have effects similar to those produced by drugs, but it happens endogenously — your body produces the chemicals that allow it to heal itself. It is more natural.”
Acupuncture for Arthritis Pain Relief
How does acupuncture work? According to the theory of Chinese medicine, the body has 14 “meridians,” or channels, that are responsible for transporting energy. The idea is that when energy is flowing smoothly through these meridians, the body will be free of pain. When the meridians get blocked and energy cannot flow through, you’re more likely to experience pain. The goal of acupuncture is to stimulate points throughout the body using very thin needles, which causes the meridians to reopen and allows for a smooth flow of energy, aiding in arthritis pain relief.
From a Western perspective, research has shown that acupuncture may improve arthritis pain by stimulating the brain to release endorphins, one of the body’s natural pain relievers. Acupuncture also has been shown to stimulate the release of cortisol, an anti-inflammatory hormone, which in turn eases the inflammation associated with knee arthritis. Since acupuncture also increases local blood circulation, using it on the knee in a patient with knee arthritis can help bring fresh blood to the area, which may also provide arthritis pain relief.
Arthritis Pain Relief With Fewer Meds
“The majority of knee arthritis patients respond well to acupuncture,” says Dr. Lao. Typically, Lao sees knee arthritis patients two or three times a week for the first three weeks. If there is noticeable arthritis pain relief, the sessions will decrease to once a week, followed by once every other week, depending on the patient’s level of improvement.
Knee arthritis patients are advised to continue their arthritis medication regimens when beginning acupuncture treatment. “We tell people to maintain their medications because otherwise it’s hard to know whether the acupuncture is working or whether they’re just reacting to going off drug treatment,” says Lao. “If they start feeling better, the patient can cut down on medications as needed, under the supervision of their physician.”
Arthritis Pain Relief from Magnetic Field Pulses
Another emerging arthritis remedy is pulsed magnetic field therapy, a non-invasive treatment for joint pain.
This 60-year-old healing modality involves delivery of magnetic field energy to the outside of the body via an electromagnetic field generating machine. It treats the source of arthritis pain rather than the perception, or feeling, of pain, which is what pain medications address.
“Medications are delivered in very high doses in order to deliver the necessary amount to the patient,” explains Marko Markov, PhD, an expert in biophysics with special interest in magnetic fields. “But once the action of the medication is gone, the pain perception is back because drugs do not treat the source of the pain.
With magnetic field therapy, it is possible to treat just the area of the body where the pain originates. In most cases, pain is a result of inflammation, which creates extra liquid that compresses the nerve endings. Magnetic field therapy allows the blood vessels and lymphatic system to drain the area. The extra liquid is absorbed, the pressure is gone, and the patient is free of pain.”
If you have osteoarthritis and are considering alternative arthritis remedies, talk to your doctor about whether it’s safe for you to consider acupuncture or pulsed magnetic field therapy, and where you might find practitioners in your area. Many people find that these therapies can be helpful additions to an already existing arthritis treatment plan.
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