Living with arthritis can often feel burdensome, especially when the pain begins before you’re out of bed. Oftentimes the discomfort can disturb sleep making the mornings even more difficult to bear. For many, acupuncture provides a safe, non habit forming, way to relieve pain, easy stiffness, and reduce inflammation.
Let’s start with the basics and discuss the two most common forms of arthritis and how modern medicine approaches this long-term disease. Lastly, we will examine the research showing how acupuncture directly benefits those with arthritis.
What is Arthritis?
In general, arthritis is a condition in which there is swelling and tenderness of one or more joints. The main symptoms being pain and stiffness in the afflicted joint that is usually worse with age. The two most common forms of arthritis are osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis. The main symptoms of pain and stiffness are present in both types of arthritis. Mainly, what sets these two forms of arthritis apart is how the conditions damage the joint.
What is the Difference Between Rheumatoid Arthritis and Osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, often referred to as “wear and tear.” According to Healthline it affects almost 30 million people in the United States and is the most common chronic joint condition leading to disability. It can affect any joint in the body but it is most common in the hands, knees, hips, neck, and spine. The Arthritis Foundation states that osteoarthritis can affect anyone at any age but is most common in patients over the age of 50 and seen more often in women than in men.
In osteoarthritis the cartilage that cushions the ends of the bones deteriorate, cracking and creating uneven edges which inhibit the joints mobility. This breakdown of the cartilage can lead to the end of the bones rubbing against each other. This is referred to as “bone on bone” causing a considerable amount of intense discomfort and pain. Similarly to ligaments and tendons, cartilage in our body is not able to repair itself because it does not have its own blood supply.
Joint tissue and bone are also affected in this condition. As the cartilage begins to deteriorate the shape of the bone can change with it becoming uneven, and bumpy. This further decreases the ability of the joint to move while increasing pain and inflammation. The degeneration of cartilage can also affect the connective tissue that holds the joint together causing it to deteriorate as well.
What is the Main Cause of Osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis was thought to be a condition caused by the wearing down of the process that occurred over time. Scientists now believe that it is a disease of the joint. The majority of causes of osteoarthritis are out of your control, but some aspects you can influence through lifestyle choices.
Many agree that the main cause of osteoarthritis is age related. The older you get the more your risk for osteoarthritis increases. Healthline states that most people will have symptoms of osteoarthritis by the age of 70. Other causes of osteoarthritis can be damage to a joint from a prior injury which includes torn cartilage, dislocated joints, and ligament injuries. The Arthritis Foundation also mentions that genetics play a role in risk.
Another factor that can increase your risk of developing osteoarthritis is obesity. Fortunately, this one thing that you have more control over! There is a direct relationship between the amount you weigh and the stress that is placed on weight bearing joints like the hips and knees. As you would think, the heavier you are the greater your risk.
In fact, fat tissue produces proteins that can cause severe inflammation of the joint and throughout your body.
As mentioned early most symptoms of arthritis tend to increase over time and include:
- Severe pain
- Deep aches and pain in the joints during activity or after a long day
- Swelling of the joints.
- Clicking sounds when the joint moves
- Limited range of motion
- Joint instability
- Joint weakness
Western Medical Treatment for Osteoarthritis
Since there is no cure for osteoarthritis the main focus of treatment is to reduce pain and increase range of motion. With the help of physical therapy muscles around the joint can become stronger which helps improve stability while reducing pain.
More extreme treatments include cortisone injections, and lubrication injections. In the most severe cases, joint replacement surgery.
Now, let’s switch gears and look at rheumatoid arthritis. According to the American College of Rheumatology, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune arthritis affecting more than 1.3 million Americans. Out of those affected, 75% are women.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disease usually occurring when the body’s immune system attacks the healthy tissue in the joint causing inflammation and pain. The small joints in the hand and feet are most affected. Chronic painful swelling in the joint tissue can lead to bone erosion and deformity impacting other body systems. Common areas it can affect are the lungs, skin, eyes, blood vessels, and the heart.
What Causes Rheumatoid Arthritis?
The cause of rheumatoid arthritis is currently unknown. According to The Mayo Clinic genetics appear to play a role. For example, a person’s genetics can make them more able to become infected with a certain virus or bacteria. This could then trigger the development of rheumatoid arthritis.
A few common risk factors are:
- Children exposed to cigarette smoke. These children had double the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis
Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms
The primary symptoms that are common include:
- Tender, swollen, and painful joints
- Joint stiffness worse in the morning, and after periods of inactivity
- Loss of appetite
- Flare-ups and periods of remission (reduced symptoms)
The disease usually begins bilaterally in the small joints of the hand and feet. As the disease progresses it can move to the wrists, hands, knees, ankles, hips, and shoulders.
Western Medicine Treatment of Rheumatoid Arthritis
In western medicine the treatment focus is on managing pain, and inflammation. The goal is to improve the patient’s quality of life and ability to perform day-to-day tasks. Most patients have to try different combinations of medications. Early treatment can prevent long lasting permanent joint damage with better outcomes.
Is Acupuncture Effective For Arthritis?
Yes! There are many studies about acupuncture and herbal medicine for the treatment of arthritis. Research shows that acupuncture is effective in treating both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis by:
- Increasing circulation
- Reducing swelling
- Reducing inflammation
- Repairing damaged tissue
- Reducing pain
How is Acupuncture Used to Treat Arthritis?
Studies show that acupuncture can stimulate the nerves releasing endorphins and altering the processing of pain in the brain and spinal cord. Helping to stop pain by regulating the effects of the body’s internal opioids, acupuncture can also help to disperse swelling by increasing circulation of blood and lymph in the body.
Researchers at Gansu University of Traditional Medicine Affiliated hospital studied acupuncture for rheumatoid arthritis finding that 91.2% of patients that received acupuncture had improved pain levels compared to the 76.5% of the control group that received medication treatment. After 3 months 88.3% of patients in the acupuncture group had continued improvement while the group that received mediation only had 70.6% of patients with continued improvement. The results of the study show that acupuncture can effectively reduce pain and improve biomarkers in rheumatoid arthritis. When acupuncture and Traditional Chinese herbal therapy are combined, the pain relief and reduction of inflammation is significantly greater.
Research from Lian Jian, Zhengzhou Orthopedic Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine further confirms that acupuncture combined with herbal medicine for arthritis can significantly reduce pain. The study compares patients receiving medication, acupuncture, and herbal medicine, to patients that only take medication. Receiving both acupuncture and herbal medicine was most beneficial to subjects who reported longer lasting pain relief.
Does Acupuncture Work for Arthritis in Hands?
Yes, acupuncture can help relieve clinical symptoms associated to arthritis in the hands. Acupuncture helps the body send a message to the brain triggering a release of neurotransmitters called endorphins and enkephalins, which reduces the sensation and experience of pain. In addition to acupunctures effects on releasing opioid-like chemicals to help relieve pain, acupuncture also has a strong anti-inflammatory effect.
Best Diet To Help Arthritis
Nutrition is not to be overlooked in arthritis cases. Foods that can help reduce inflammation and thus improve joint symptoms are:
- Fatty Fish – such as salmon are high in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D
- Garlic – has been shown to reduce inflammation and may be associated with decreasing the risk of osteoarthritis.
- Broccoli- has also been associated with reducing inflammation. Broccoli is high in a compound called sulforaphane, which shows promise in reducing inflammatory markers found in rheumatoid arthritis.
- Walnuts – reduces inflammation as it is also high in omega-3 fatty acids.
- Berries – contain a high amount of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
- Spinach – full of antioxidants and kaempferol, which can also decrease inflammation.
- Olive oil – has also shown to decrease inflammation, and may be associated with a lower risk of arthritis.
Foods that increase inflammation and are to be avoided are:
- Fried and processed foods: These dietary choices significantly increase inflammation. Removing these from the diet can help the body restore its natural defense.
- Sugar and refined carbohydrates also significantly increase inflammation.
- Dairy products: For some people the protein found in dairy can cause inflammation in the tissue around the joint.
- Salt and preservatives: Both can increase inflammation and are found in many store bought packaged foods to increase shelf life.
- Corn oil: Is high in omega-6 fatty acids causing an inflammatory response and found in a lot of baked goods and snacks.
Diet is very important in all aspects of health. Making even only a few dietary changes can have a dramatic effect on your risk of arthritis, and other diseases. These changes can also improve your overall health, and you will experience additional positive health benefits.
If you are interested in pursuing acupuncture for arthritis in Denver please don’t hesitate to reach out to me with any questions.