Acupuncture & rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a disease that is a growing concern in the UK as our elderly population grows. As the average life expectancy increases, the number of people suffering from this type of arthritis, which is very much a disease of old age, also increases. In this article we look at RA (rheumatoid arthritis) and how acupuncture can be used to manage the disease.

What is rheumatoid arthritis (RA)?

RA belongs to a family of diseases called arthritis, all of which share in common the fact that they involve an inflammation of the joints that affects mobility and quality of life. Rheumatoid arthritis is distinct from other types of the disease because it is the consequence of an autoimmune, systemic, inflammatory disease which affects a protective capsule enclosing our joints. Autoimmune diseases are those caused by a change in our body’s defence’s ability to discern ‘self’ from ‘non-self’ materials. The result is that these defences, dubbed the immune system, begin to target elements of the body, causing sickness.

RA is a progressive, degenerative disease, meaning that over time it breaks down structures important to joint function. What starts off as an inflammation of the capsule surrounding a joint turns eventually leads to further degradation of the joint. Fibrous tissue develops, and eventually the loss of cartilage, a soft gel like material that cushions and protects joints, results in a fusion of joints that is severely painful and impacts mobility.

There are a number of different treatment options available to sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis, but these are geared towards managing symptoms as there is no cure for the disease as of yet. Treatments include both drug based therapies which can achieve varying degrees of success, and non-pharmaceutical options like physical therapy.

Drug based treatment of RA is usually aimed at preventing the long term effects of the immune system on joint health, while alternatives like physiotherapy work to keep joints mobile for as long as possible. The use of medical supports and braces (orthoses) has some success in protecting the structure of joints and delaying the onset of deformities commonly observed as a consequence of arthritis.

The management of arthritis and its symptoms can be quite complex, and some patients don’t respond well to conventional therapies, and acupuncture can often provide a useful alternative for people in this situation.

Acupuncture used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis

Acupuncture is sometimes used to relieve the discomfort and pain of arthritis by reducing joint inflammation. The effectiveness of acupuncture in the management and treatment of rheumatoid arthritis is still subject to some debate, however many people report the practice to be useful, particularly in relieving pain and muscle spasms associated with the condition.

Using acupuncture needles to stimulate parts of the body affected by rheumatoid arthritis is thought to potentially achieve the release of natural pain relieving compounds. These are one of the mechanisms by which our body regulates pain, and is thought to be responsible for the effectiveness of acupuncture in treating many conditions. According to the traditional Chinese medical view of acupuncture however, these ends are in fact achieved by restoring the flow of a life force called Qi.

Western practitioners of acupuncture also argue that acupuncture can effectively relieve inflammation and muscle spasms associated with RA, thereby managing symptoms where traditional management techniques have not proved effective enough.

Two points should be borne in mind when considering the use of acupuncture to treat rheumatoid arthritis. The first is that acupuncture should only be employed as a complementary treatment, rather than a replacement for standard medical care. You should still see your doctor when necessary and follow his or her prescribed treatment plan, you should also make sure that they know you are having acupuncture performed.

Secondly you should always ensure that you receive your treatment from a trained and qualified practitioner of acupuncture. Statutory regulation is not a requirement for acupuncturists in the UK, however many practitioners register with professional bodies to provide their clients with an assurance of their skills, experience, and knowledge.

Acupuncture may offer a valuable pain and symptom management technique for anyone with rheumatoid arthritis who is struggling to deal with the condition through conventional treatment techniques.

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