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Acupunture and electroacupuncture for rheumatoid arthritis

Casimiro L, Barnsley L, Brosseau L, Milne S, Welch V, Tugwell P, Wells GA
Published Online: 
7 July 2010

Does acupuncture work for treating rheumatoid arthritis?

Two studies of low to medium quality were reviewed and provide the best evidence we have today. The studies tested 84 people who had rheumatoid arthritis. The studies compared acupuncture to a placebo (fake therapy) or a steroid injection. Improvement was measured after one treatment or after five treatments given once per week.

What causes shoulder pain and how can acupuncture help?
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a disease in which the body's immune system attacks its own healthy tissues. The attack happens mostly in the joints of the hands and feet and causes redness, pain, swelling and heat around the joints. Drug and non-drug treatments are used to relieve pain and/or swelling.

Acupuncture is a non-drug therapy being in which thin needles are inserted into the body at specific spots. It is thought that acupuncture works either by releasing chemical compounds in the body that relieve pain, by overriding pain signals in the nerves or by allowing energy (Qi) or blood to flow freely through the body. It is not known whether acupuncture works or is safe.

What do the studies show?
In one study, people had acupuncture or fake therapy for five weeks, once per week. Pain, number of swollen and tender joints, disease activity, overall well-being, lab results, or amount of pain medication needed was about the same whether they had acupuncture or fake therapy.

In the other study, people had acupuncture with an electric current going through the needles at specific or real acupuncture spots in the knee or at fake spots in the knee. Knee pain while at rest, while moving or while standing decreased more in the people who had the real acupuncture. The improvement lasted up to 4 months after acupuncture. Unfortunately, the authors of this review believe that this trial was of low quality and may overestimate how well acupuncture works.

How safe is it?
Side effects were not measured in the studies.

What is the bottom line?
The quality of the evidence is 'silver'.

From the little evidence that there is, acupuncture does not appear to improve the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.