Rheumatoid Arthritis and Acupuncture

Rheumatoid Arthritis acupunctureRheumatoid Arthritis in the medical community is known as a “garbage bag” diagnosis. At last count, there are more than 200 separate conditions that are called “rheumatoid arthritis.” Among the most common are Systemic and Discoid Lupus Erythematosus, Scleroderma, Reiter’s syndrome, Behçet’s syndrome, Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, Psoriatic Arthritis, and “genuine” Rheumatoid Arthritis.

All share some of the same findings: red, inflamed, stiff, swollen and painful joints. (As opposed to osteoarthritis – “wear and tear arthritis” which does not have inflammation – a hallmark of rheumatoid arthritis. Ninety percent of patients with osteoarthritis will respond to Medical Acupuncture, but not nearly so dramatically as the rheumatoid variants.)

Conventional treatment is to reduce inflammation with drugs and to avoid trauma to the inflamed joints, which are vulnerable to damage with relatively minor trauma.

Prednisone, a powerful cortisone derivative, is commonly used. However, long-term use causes significant problems, including bone loss, susceptibility to infection, swelling, weight gain, and eventually cataracts in the eye.

Other common medications are anti-cancer agents (like methotrexate and Cytoxan) which attack rapidly dividing cells, gold salts, and anti-malarials. All can benefit patients, but each has a long list of side effects and counter indications. Those and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents like ibuprofen or naproxen can be used in addition to Medical Acupuncture – in consultation with your Primary Care Physician or Rheumatologist – to maximize return of function.

Medical Acupuncture for Rheumatoid Arthrits

Rheumatoid Arthritis AcupunctureMedical Acupuncture is particularly effective in treating inflammatory conditions such as the rheumatoid arthritis variants. Researchers at the University of Toronto Medical School and also University of Upsala Medical School in Sweden have demonstrated mechanisms by which acupuncture can help. Results are outstanding, either as a stand alone treatment or in combination with conventional medications.

Simply put, stimulation of certain nerves causes the body to release leu encephalon – a very powerful endorphin — which explains part of the reason pain can be relieved.

For each molecule of endorphin produced, the body also releases a molecule of ACTH, a pituitary hormone which signals the adrenal glands to release cortisol. It is the body’s own cortisol which relieves the inflammation causing the pain and other symptoms. Thus, the person being treated can have all the good effects of cortisone with none of the bad effects, since it is the person’s own cortisol being stimulated.

Undoubtedly there are other mechanisms involved. Although the above have been documented independently at several research centers, one would expect they would take several hours to take effect. It has been documented that it takes 45 minutes of stimulation to release cortisol and leu enkephalin. However, clinically, patients often receive relief within seconds – and often it grows over the following minutes to hour. I really cannot explain the mechanism involved. Just note that it exists. Certainly it is faster than any medication of which I am aware.

My experience in treating patients with Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis variants, Polymyalgia Rheumatica, etc. is that most patients experience an improvement in the underlying auto-immune condition, with the result that pain, redness, swelling, and stiffness markedly diminish. In the case of Cerebral Lupus – the “psychiatric” symptoms clear as inflammation in the brain is reduced. This is either immediately or certainly in the first day. Typically the benefits of the first treatment last from 1/2 day to a week. Each treatment thereafter typically doubles the amount of relief, until people get on a maintenance schedule of one treatment every 3 to 6 months, when symptoms start recurring.

Normally, people gain range of motion in joints (i.e., can write/type when before they could not even hold a pen.) Although swelling goes down, usually there is some residual, especially if there have been bone changes.

People tend to have an increase in their sense of well-being. Their energy is no longer directed at repairing the constant damage caused by the body attacking itself. Also there is a psychological improvement when people realize there is hope that they won’t become totally disabled and dependent on others.

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