Rehabilitation Medicine

Can acupuncture help with arthritis pain? Does getting stuck with all those needles hurt?

The use of acupuncture dates back more than 2,500 years in China, but it wasn’t until the latter part of the 20th century that the practice became widely accepted in this country. Although many people commonly associate acupuncture with pain relief, it might surprise you to know that the World Health Organization (WHO) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommend acupuncture as adjunct treatment for such disorders as nausea, anxiety, depression, insomnia and irritable bowel syndrome, as well as acute and chronic pain from conditions like arthritis.

If you’ve never seen acupuncture needles, you’ll be surprised. They are about twice as thin as the hypodermic needles that are used for injections. An acupuncture needle is approximately the same thickness as a strand of coarse human hair. When an acupuncture needle enters the skin, some patients will feel a small prick, but many feel nothing at all.

In Eastern philosophy, acupuncture is based on the traditional theory that energy, called Qi (chee), circulates along well-defined pathways of the body. Contact points connected to various parts of the body are located on the pathways. Stimulating or interrupting the Qi at any of these specific points balances the energy flow and restores well-being to the part of the body connected to that point. Many of these acupuncture points are not necessarily close to the part of the body they influence. According to the most recent medical research, acupuncture appears to work in three ways. It stimulates the body to release its own natural painkillers, called endorphins; it improves circulation and immune function through the effect of needles on blood flow; and it helps change the way that the brain and nervous system perceive pain.

Your first acupuncture appointment will take from 30 to 60 minutes to allow the physician time to discuss your health history and symptoms in detail followed by a focused physical examination. At that point, a detailed treatment plan will be formulated.

During acupuncture therapy, you will be positioned comfortably on a treatment table, and sterile, one-time use acupuncture needles will be inserted at specific, predetermined spots. As few as two or as many as 20 needles may be needed depending on the treatment plan. Following the initial pinprick, it’s not unusual for patients to feel a sense of gentle warmth at the site of the needle, followed by a feeling of relief from symptoms and a gradually relaxing of the body. A few patients will experience so much relief that they actually fall asleep during their session. Depending on the treatment plan, the needles will remain in place from 15 minutes to an hour. During that time, the needles may be left alone, manipulated by hand, or hooked up to gentle electrical stimulation.

The number of treatments required varies by individual. The goal is to use acupuncture as a treatment that enhances the effect of your other therapies. For some patients, this can be achieved with just a few visits; others may require several visits that could be as frequent as weekly. If you are suffering from a painful injury or from a chronic medical condition, ask your physician if acupuncture is a potential appropriate treatment.

Originally published in The University Doctors' MedicaLink - 12/09

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