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Acupuncture for Rheumatoid Arthritis: What to Expect at Your First Visit
Interested in trying acupuncture for RA pain and other symptoms, but don’t know where to start? Here’s a primer.
By Christopher Chalk
Medically Reviewed by Alexa Meara, MD
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While science supports the pain-relieving powers of acupuncture, a practice that involves inserting needles into the skin at specific body points, studies on acupuncture for rheumatoid arthritis symptoms have not been conclusive. As research continues, however, there are good reasons for people with RA to be curious about acupuncture.
It won’t stop disease progression or prevent joint damage, but there’s a decent chance it will help you feel better. A randomized controlled trial published in the July 2015 issue ofTrialsshowed a significant reduction in fatigue in chronic fatigue sufferers who underwent acupuncture. Research published in the May 2014BMJ Openfound that acupuncture brought some relief to people suffering from both depression and pain. What’s more, acupuncture is proven to help relieve common problems such as allergies and sleep disorders — and more than one ailment can be treated by an acupuncturist simultaneously.
What to Expect When You See an Acupuncturist
“The first step at my office is to take a detailed history, including questions on bowel and bladder habits, sleeping, and lifestyle,” says Kris Tohtz, an acupuncturist who teaches at the National University of Health Sciences in Lombard, Illinois. “Then I look at symptoms, like how are the patient's joints? Red, hot, swollen, and painful or cold and painful? Then I examine the tongue and evaluate the pulse. From the history, symptoms, tongue, and pulse evaluation I form a Chinese diagnosis, which tells me what acupuncture points to use on that patient.”
A Typical Acupuncture Treatment
A treatment course can vary from person to person, but according to Tohtz, “Patients are usually seen one to two times per week for 10 to 12 weeks. They may need some monthly tune-ups after this depending on how they are feeling,” Tohtz estimates. Those undergoing treatment will know if acupuncture is going to help them fairly soon. “Patients should see results after four to six treatments,” Tohtz says.
Acupuncture Safety and Regulations
According to the National Institutes of Health, complications resulting from acupuncture are relatively few, but there are two things that can cause serious problems. The first is using needles that are not sterile, which can cause infection. This is of particular concern for people with RA because they face an increased risk for infections due to immune system dysfunction and/or certain RA medications. The other potential issue has to do with improper use of the needle, such as going too deep and puncturing an organ.
Still, says the rheumatologist Ashira Blazer, MD, an instructor at the New York University Langone School of Medicine in New York City, acupuncture is generally safe and worth trying. “It’s low risk, and you will know if it’s going to help you within a couple of treatments.”
How to Find an Acupuncturist
Look for a licensed acupuncturist or a physician certified to practice acupuncture. The Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM) is the only authority in acupuncture recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. To practice in most states, practitioners who graduate from accredited ACAOM schools need a minimum of a master’s degree. Acupuncturists who are certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) are known as NCCAOM diplomates, or licensed acupuncturists (LAc).
A physician (MD, DO) can also practice acupuncture with 100 to 300 hours of training, but the American Medical Association only certifies MDs who have 300 hours, says Tohtz.
“Physicians with a diplomate (300 hours) may have a greater depth in diagnostic capabilities compared with licensed acupuncturists but may lack some of their herbal knowledge,” explains Tohtz, who has a diplomate as well as masters in acupuncture.
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