Nearly 54 million adults in the US have doctor-diagnosed arthritis.1 Over 300,000 children also have some form of arthritis. And by the year 2040, the total number of people in the US with an arthritis diagnosis is expected to mushroom to 78 million. In other words, this is a condition that will affect all of us, in one form or another.

But despite the prevalence of arthritis, there's good news: If you're looking for a safe, effective arthritis treatment with very few side-effects, acupuncture is rising to the challenge. We'll dig into how and why this ancient Chinese treatment is making such a splash in the arthritis world. But first, let's step back and get some background.

What is arthritis?

Arthritis is simply the swelling and tenderness of your joints.2 This can cause aching pain and stiffness; it can also limit your movement. There are two main types of arthritis to know about.

The first type of arthritis is osteoarthritis, which affects about 27 million Americans.3 This is the most common type of arthritis, and is probably what comes to mind when most people think of the ailment. Osteoarthritis is caused by the breakdown of cartilage at the end of your bones. Cartilage is a tough, slippery substance that allows your bones to move freely without grinding against each other. When cartilage breaks down - which can happen as a simple result of wear and tear - friction increases between the bones, causing joint pain. Most people over 60 years of age have some degree of osteoarthritis, but the severity can vary greatly.

The second type of arthritis is rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an auto-immune disorder. This means that, for one reason or another, your body attacks itself in a case of mistaken identity. This causes inflammation and chronic pain. Note that rheumatoid arthritis doesn't just attack the joints - it can damage the eyes, skin, heart, lungs, and blood vessels.4

Acupuncture for arthritis is an option in both of these cases. But what is acupuncture? And how does it help arthritis patients?

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a health treatment that first emerged in China over 2000 years ago.5 It is based on the Traditional Chinese Medicine philosophy, which holds that the human body is run through with energy, called qi or chi (pronounced 'chee'). This energy travels along lines, called meridians.

When energy is obstructed or unbalanced, illness results. An acupuncturist, however, can restore balance to the system by inserting acupuncture needles in key points along the meridians. These needles only penetrate very slightly into the skin; the process is virtually painless.

During a typical acupuncture session, your acupuncturist will then pluck or twirl these needles - or perhaps apply a mild electrical pulse. They will then leave the acupuncture needles in your skin for anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes. You can simply lie peacefully during this time, which most people find quite calming. Afterwards, your acupuncturist will painlessly remove the needles, and you can go about your day. They may also prescribe you herbal medicine in accordance with Traditional Chinese Medicine principles.

Does acupuncture really help arthritis?

The effectiveness of acupuncture in arthritis treatment has been the subject of some debate. But to date, a number of studies have concluded that acupuncture does help in the treatment of arthritis and can be a safe, effective part of your arthritis treatment plan. Let's review some of the proven benefits:

Acupuncture provides chronic pain relief

A major 2013 study found that acupuncture, when tested against a similar placebo, relieves pain and is an effective treatment in that regard.6 This study specifically looked at osteoarthritis patients - so if that's the kind of chronic pain you're suffering from, there's every reason to believe acupuncture will help.

It's also worth noting that acupuncture comes with very few potential side effects - unlike drug medications for pain relief (e.g. opiate medications), which can be addictive and have other dangerous and unhealthy side effects.

Acupuncture improves joint function

Another study in 2016 looked specifically at knee pain, which is a very common kind of osteoarthritis pain - and one of the major health issues that can limit the mobility of aging people. In this case, researchers concluded that provides both short-term pain relief and improves the function and mobility of patients' joints.7 For anyone struggling with joint stiffness due to osteoarthritis, this is very promising news.

Acupuncture improves quality of life in arthritis patients

For people with rheumatoid arthritis, chronic pain and other related health issues can prove very challenging. In 2018, a group of researchers set out to review the available literature and determine whether acupuncture is a viable treatment plan for these patients. They concluded that acupuncture alone or in combination with other treatments is, in fact, beneficial to people with rheumatoid arthritis and can improve overall quality of life.8 The researchers noted that more research is necessary to strengthen these findings and clarify how, exactly, acupuncture is delivering such important clinical benefits.

The Bottom Line

Major scientific and medical investigations have reached the same conclusion: If you're treating arthritis (whether osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis), acupuncture is a powerful and effective treatment. Of course, everyone should work closely with their doctor while pursuing any treatment plan - but having this tool at your disposal may prove immensely valuable.

After all, acupuncture isn't just a safe and effective way to treat joint pain, improve mobility and function, and enhance your quality of life - it's a calming and holistic process that you can feel good about incorporating into your wellness regimen.