It is just over a year since the National Institute of Clinical Excellence made its recommendations to the government that acupuncture should be used for back pain in Britain. And acupuncture was already well known as a sports injury treatment. Yet acupuncture does not simply treat the pain of muscles and joints. It can also reduce inflammation, ease spasm and relax the muscles.

The following article, by Roisin Golding, was first published by the Los Angeles Times (Syndicate.)

Acupuncture in the Treatment of Arthritis

The first doctor in Britain to use anaesthesia in obstetrics, the Scottish Dr. Simpson in 1847, also used acupressure. More than one hundred years later acupuncture became famous for its anaesthetic qualities when Western doctors witnessed open-heart surgery performed in China on a fully conscious patient who had received only acupuncture for their pain. Although very few people are psychologically suited to having their flesh cut open and their heart tampered with under their own watchful eye, acupuncture nonetheless became identified as an extraordinary if poorly understood pain killer.

Outside of China acupuncture research has almost exclusively focused on this aspect, looking for mostly neurological mechanisms and, more recently, neuro-chemicals such as serotonin and the endorphins, to explain the phenomena. As valid and noble as all this research work has been, it has had a limiting effect on the understanding of acupuncture as a whole. Maybe it is because of the association with analgesia that people often expect very quick results, like an anodyne.

But acupuncture is a much more complex system that not only controls pain, it can also deal with the causes of pain. Take, for instance, arthritis, a condition commonly treated in the acupuncture clinic.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a severe auto-immune disease in which the body attacks its own tissues, primarily at the joints. The process involves inflammation and destruction of joint tissue, including bone and cartilage. This causes severe pain and immobility at the joint. Some experts think the disease might be triggered by earlier minor infections but instead of the immune system switching off once the job was done, it instead started to attack its own body.

More than 2,000 years ago the Chinese viewed much arthritis as an attack from outside infectious agents, ‘carried on the wind,’ as they described it. Within Chinese medicine, the body’s defence mechanisms are thought to involve very complex interactions between energy systems (meridians) at different “levels of the body,” that is between the outer portion of the body (the skin) and the deeper portion (the organs and bones). Symptoms depend on the interaction between the “external attack” and the internal state of the persons qi or energy. The weak points in this defence mechanism were at acupuncture points on the wrists and ankles. This built-in weakness allows the bad energy from outside to be deflected away from the internal organs. Many arthritic patients claim in the first few years of their illness that they feel very well and healthy if it weren’t for their pains. Unfortunately the disease often progresses to attack other body parts.

Acupuncture stops the inflammatory process and not just the pain. Moxibustion, which is the burning of the herb Artemisia at acupuncture points (and lifted again before it burns the skin,) is also used. One can expect a reduction in the swelling around the joints, as long as these are not longstanding, the pain to subside and the joints to become freely mobile again.

Western medicine cannot cure rheumatoid arthritis and so what physicians aim for is a slowing down of the inflammatory process so that the joint cartilage and bone is left intact for as long as possible. It is hard to predict how quickly arthritis takes hold of a person but in most cases it is a slow process.

Although good results can be obtained in as little as three months of acupuncture treatment, it can often involve a longer process. Since one thing that slows down (but doesn’t prevent) the effectiveness of acupuncture is the use of strong drugs, especially long term use of cortisone, gold and penicillamine ( a drug similar to gold,) it is advisable to seek acupuncture treatment early on, when your doctor is most likely to prescribe only a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory, such as aspirin or Ibuprofen. Acupuncture intervention is then more likely to succeed within a reasonable time frame.

Acupuncture can also ameliorate the pain of osteoarthritis, the degenerative joint disease that seems , for some, inescapable in old age. In osteoarthritis the smooth cartilage surrounding the bone becomes roughened with wear and tear and this leads to increased friction and abrasion. The cushioning around the joint then becomes impaired and bone damage occurs. This is why exercising an osteo-arthritic joint is not recommended and why osteoarthritis is worse later in the day (whereas rheumatoid arthritis is worse on rising). The bony swellings around osteoarthritic joints will not disappear after acupuncture treatment, but the pain can be reduced and mobility enhanced.

To look after your joints keep them mobile while you are young, do some stretching exercises such as yoga (this can be kept up in old age,) and keep away from impact exercises, such as jogging (this can be very bad for the knees and hips.) Avoid repeatedly cracking your knuckles or neck joints. Since osteoarthritis often appears at the site of an old injury, it is important that these be treated adequately.


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Roisin is no longer taking patients in order to spend more time teaching classical acupuncture to a wider audience. For more information on Roisin's work, please click here