Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic autoimmune disorder that causes pain, stiffness, inflammation of the joints, joint deformity and reduced physical function. Autoimmune disorders are characterised by the body’s immune system attacking healthy body tissue. Both T- and B- immune cells are implicated in the underlying pathology due to overproduction of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Inevitably, it affects quality of life and life expectancy. Unfortunately, the cause of RA is still unknown. Patients often receive strong medication and may require surgical treatment. However, frequently patients will seek non-medical alternatives to try and alleviate their symptoms.
Acupuncture is often sought by patients for pain. Through its ability to modulate pain signals and release of neuro-chemicals e.g. serotonin and endorphins that influence biochemical changes within the body’s homeostatic mechanisms, thus promoting physical and emotional well-being.
A new systematic review of the clinical efficacy of acupuncture on RA was published which included 43 studies. The study concluded that acupuncture alone or in combination with other treatment modalities is beneficial to treating RA, by improving physical function and quality of life. Possible mechanisms included anti-inflammatory effect, anti-oxidative effect and regulation of immune system function.
Acupuncture is believed to stimulate the circulatory and nervous system causing the release of
- Release body chemicals and changes the way the brain and spinal cord processes the pain signals. These chemicals include; endorphins and other neurohumoral factors e.g. neuropeptide Y, serotonin.
- Increases local release of nitrous oxide(NO) known to play an important physiological role in skin local microcirculation, neurotransmission, immunity and wound healing.
- Reduces inflammation by regulating the immune system, thus normalising immune function.
- Increases the release of adenosine, which reduces the sensitivity to pain
- Modulates parts of the brain network (limbic and paralimbic system), responsible for anti-pain, anti-anxiety, and other therapeutic effects
- Improves muscle stiffness and joint mobility by increasing local microcirculation, and therefore blood circulation.
- Benefits depression by acting through other pathways involving dopamine, noradrenaline, cortisol and neuropeptide Y. Stress-induced behavioural and biochemical changes may also be reversed. Acupuncture can generally be safely used in combination with medical treatments.
Alongside acupuncture dietary changes to avoid anti-inflammatory foods e.g. consider reducing consumption of meat, avoid gluten and eliminate dairy products, avoid citrus foods and consume sugars and in small amouts only. In addition supplements can help to support the immune system;
- Essential fatty acids (EFA) like fish or fish oil, flax seed and borage seed oil.
- Turmeric or ginger for its anti-inflammatory action.