Ancient Medicine, Modern Relief: Acupuncture

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese medical treatment which has been practiced for over 3,000 years. Acupuncture has a long history in Traditional Chinese Medicine for treating a variety of health conditions, including Arthritis.

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine Philosophy, acupuncture restores balance in the body by unblocking energy channels, called meridians, to promote the flow of ‘Qi’ in different bodily systems and stimulate the body’s natural healing response. ‘Qi’ is said to be one of the bodies life forces. It is believed that when there is a blockage in a bodily system, pain and disease is manifested. Depending on which channel is impacted by the blockage, the bones, blood vessels, tendons or muscles are said to be affected.

Acupuncture treatments involve stimulating specific lines, acupuncture points or neural zones through the placement of thin, solid, and flexible stainless-steel needles to relieve pain and restore balance in the body.

Role of the Acupuncturist

The acupuncturists role is to recognize where the blockage of ‘Qi’ is and what has caused and contributed to the blockage. In the long term care of patients, acupuncturists aim to recognize how emotion impacts on patients, physical health and then along with placing needles, coaching, and guiding them toward greater emotional intelligence.

The research is growing, but in some cases there has been sound evidence that acupuncture may help with pain and stiffness. Some studies show acupuncture was effective in reducing pain and improving physical function in certain joints affected by osteoarthritis. It is important to highlight the evidence is mixed, but there’s little risk to trying it.

The Science of Acupuncture

Some research suggests that acupuncture activates neurohormonal pathways which stimulate the production of neurotransmitters like endorphins, serotonin, enkephalins, GABA, norepinephrine, and dopamine. When these pathways are activated, they could alter the perception of pain. Another study suggested that acupuncture may help reduce pain by reducing pro-inflammatory markers in the body, such as TNF-a, and overall, lowering the inflammatory response.

What the Research Shows 

Here’s a look at some of the recent research that has been done:

  • Osteoarthritis (OA). Is considered a nociceptive pain condition, meaning pain signals are sent to the brain from the exposed nerve endings on the joint that has deteriorated over time. Due to the sustained processing of pain, this can cause pathologic neuroplastic changes which leads to the brain enhancing the perception of pain. In 2019, a systemic review found that patients who were administered acupuncture reported a short-term yet significant reduction in pain intensity and  improved functional mobility The mechanisms and clinical efficacy require more evidence, but its suggested that it’s possibly due to interference of pain signals from the joint to the brain through controlled stimulation of acupuncture points, so it could be an effective treatment option.
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). A systematic review that looked at 43 studies, that were conducted between 1974 and 2018 suggested “acupuncture alone or combined with other treatment modalities is beneficial to the clinical conditions of RA and can improve function and quality of life and is worth trying.” The review cites several possible ways acupuncture effects RA, including its anti-inflammatory effect and regulation of immune system function. The review acknowledges that there is still inconsistency among trial findings and further research is needed to evaluate the effects of acupuncture and how it works, but it could be effective for the management of RA.
What to expect in a session?

If you’re interested in trying acupuncture for arthritis, it’s important to find a qualified and licensed acupuncturist who has experience treating your specific condition.

They will ask you about your medical history and any medications or supplements you’re taking, as well as examine your joints to identify the best points for treatment.

During a typical acupuncture session, you’ll lie down on a table and the acupuncturist will insert fine thread-like needles into specific points on your body. You may feel a slight prick or tingling sensation, but acupuncture it is not typically painful. The needles will be left in place for 15-30 minutes while you relax.

You may need multiple sessions of acupuncture to see significant improvements in your arthritis symptoms. How much of a benefit you receive may depend on the severity of your arthritis, and how often you get treated. Some people find that the effects of acupuncture last for several weeks or months, while others may need ongoing treatment to manage their pain and inflammation.

Acupuncture & Arthritis

Western medicine doesn’t recognize the concepts of qi and meridians. However, scientific evidence suggests alternate explanations for why and how acupuncture might provide analgesic effects due to its holistic application. It is becoming an increasingly popular treatment and studies suggest it could be a beneficial adjunct therapy in western medicine worth a shot.

For more information: 

To find an acupuncturist, you may ask your doctor, or contact the Australian Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine Association and use the ‘find a practitioner ’ feature  at or contact Australia’s Natural Therapists Association
The Acupuncture Evidence Project: 
Arthritis Foundation (US) 
Chou, P. C., & Chu, H. Y. (2018). Clinical Efficacy of Acupuncture on Rheumatoid Arthritis and Associated Mechanisms: A Systemic Review. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM2018, 8596918.
Paley, C. A., & Johnson, M. I. (2019). Acupuncture for the Relief of Chronic Pain: A Synthesis of Systematic Reviews. Medicina56(1), 6. MDPI AG. Retrieved from

Mary Zagotsis
Health Educator
Arthritis NSW

May 2023