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March 13, 2023

Can acupuncture treat pain due to arthritis?

What is pain?

Pain is an indicator that something is hurt or injured in the body. It is a way of telling you that something might be wrong and needs attention. When your body is injured (say you trip and fall on your knee), inflammation of tissues and nerves occurs in the area that has been hurt. Some key signs of inflammation include swelling, pain, redness, feeling warm to the touch, some loss of normal or typical function. These are all a part of a normal healing response in the body. Sometimes we experience pain for other reasons – we don’t have to trip and fall to feel pain! Sometimes we wake up with a sore back, or the cold makes your hands feel tight and crampy.

How can acupuncture treat pain?

Acupuncture has long been used as an effective tool to alleviate and treat pain. From a Western perspective and understanding, acupuncture releases neurotransmitters, endorphins and enkephalins, reducing the sensation of pain. It can help build white blood cells, which help to protect your body from injury and illness5. It also helps your body to release oxytocin, the hormone that gives you those warm, fuzzy feelings of love, trust, and relationship. From an East Asian perspective and understanding, acupuncture treats the pain by restoring balance to the Qi within the body through activation of various points and channels. Healthy Qi will flow with no issue, cycling through the body without getting stuck or too depleted. Qi or blood can stagnate within the body, or we can be susceptible to external pathogens that can cause pain. If we regulate the flow of Qi, we improve our health (and in this case, reduce or eliminate our pain)! Acupuncture also treats our organs by tonifying or harmonizing them, so our body functions properly. Lastly, it also treats our spirit, or Shen, which is our presence, vitality, consciousness. When we care for our Shen, we live in harmony and health.

“…every needling’s method first must be rooted in Shen”. This sentence is usually translated as: “All treatment must be based on the Spirit”. (Ling Shu Chapter 8, Nei Jing)

Arthritis & East Asian Medicine

Arthritis causes inflammation, pain, and swelling of the joints, and is the leading cause of disability. The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis, which typically affects the hands, hips, and knees. The cartilage in these joints begin to break down, and can change the bone. This is why it is often called “wear and tear” arthritis. Another common form of arthritis is rheumatoid arthritis, which is an autoimmune and inflammatory disease where your immune system begins to attack your healthy cells by mistake. This typically affects the joints, as well.

From an East Asian perspective, arthritic pain often presents as a result of a Bi syndrome. Bi syndrome is a category of disease that is caused by an invasion of a pathogen (wind, cold, dampness, heat) on the meridians involving muscles and sinews. The different types of Bi syndromes present with different qualities of pain4. Typically, they present in the following ways:

  • Cold Bi: localized pain, cramping, constricting, tight, better with warmth
  • Damp Bi: joint swelling, heavy, achy pain
  • Wind Bi: moving or radiating pain
  • Heat Bi: burning pain, better with cold

Arthritis pain can also involve other patterns, involving our Qi, Blood, and Body Fluids. These all are important to ensuring healthy, normal flow throughout the body, and any disruption may present as pain or other symptoms.

  • Qi/ Blood/ Body Fluid deficiency: This results in dull, lingering pain that is worse with movement.
  • Qi stagnation: This results in distending pain that is better with movement.
  • Blood stagnation: This results in sharp, stabbing, localized pain.

Lastly, some of our organs and specific channels can support when we feel pain, particularly related to our bones or muscles.

  • Liver Deficiency: The Liver is responsible for proper flow of Qi, and regulates sinews and muscles.
  • Kidney Deficiency: The Kidney responsible for bones.
  • Sinew/ muscle channels: These channels are good for acute or chronic injuries because you treat the Jing Well points and Ah Shi points along the channel. Ah Shi points are found by reactivity or sensation (it doesn’t have to feel like pain necessarily, but could feel tight or sunken too!) Jing Well points are located on the tips of the extremities and can open up stuck Qi in a whole muscle chain6.

Acupuncture Points for Arthritis

East Asian Medicine treatments can include acupuncture points and herbal formulas specializing in combating and expelling these exterior pathogens, and in turn, reducing or eliminating the pain. There are some common points where you can apply acupressure or massage that can provide some pain relief, but it is always best to speak with an acupuncturist to determine the best course of action for your specific type of pain!

Some acupressure body points for various types of pain (see the images below for the specific locations in order to find them!):

  • For general pain, try Large Intestine 4, or He Gu, in the webbing between your index finger and thumb.
  • For neck pain and shoulder pain, try Small Intestine 3, or Hou Xi, on the lateral side of your hand below the joint where your fingers meet the palm of your hand.
  • For wrist & arm pain, try San Jiao 4, or Yang Chi, at the wrist joint.
  • For knee & hip pain, try Gallbladder 34 or Yang Ling Quan, just below the knee joint.
  • For low back, back of the knee, or foot pain, try Urinary Bladder 63, or Jin Men, on the lateral side of the foot.
  • For ankle pain, try Stomach 41, Jie Xi, on the top of the foot near the ankle joint.


About the Author

Molly wears a checkered dress in front of a wood panelled backdropMolly Pilloton Lam is a first-year Master’s student at AIMC with a background in working with BIPOC communities in education, educational leadership, public health, and trauma-informed youth mental health program settings. She is interested in expanding education and equitable access to acupuncture and EAM in BIPOC and communities, particularly to support people with the impacts of trauma. She is excited to be a student at AIMC for her pathway to acupuncture, and looks forward to uplifting its traditional practices and other BIPOC practitioners’ voices.

References:

  1. Chou PC, Chu HY. Clinical Efficacy of Acupuncture on Rheumatoid Arthritis and Associated Mechanisms: A Systemic Review. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2018 Apr 12;2018:8596918. doi: 10.1155/2018/8596918. PMID: 29849731; PMCID: PMC5925010.
  2. Selfe TK, Taylor AG. Acupuncture and osteoarthritis of the knee: a review of randomized, controlled trials. Fam Community Health. 2008 Jul-Sep;31(3):247-54. doi: 10.1097/01.FCH.0000324482.78577.0f. PMID: 18552606; PMCID: PMC2810544.
  3. Yang L, Adams J. The Role of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Arthritis Management: Why We Need Public Health and Health Services Research. Front Public Health. 2020 Dec 17;8:597917. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2020.597917. PMID: 33392135; PMCID: PMC7773773.
  4. How Do You Treat Osteoarthritis in Your Practice? Med Acupunct. 2017 Jun 1;29(3):166-172. doi: 10.1089/acu.2017.29053.cpl. PMID: 28736594; PMCID: PMC5512319.
  5. Evidence Based Acupuncture: Acupuncture for Pain. [online] Available at: https://www.evidencebasedacupuncture.org/pain/. [Accessed 3 March 2023].
  6. Acupuncture Today: The Sinew Channels. [online] Available at: https://www.acupuncturetoday.com/mpacms/at/article.php?id=32443.[Accessed 3 March 2023].
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