Acupuncture — targeting specific pressure points in the body with thin needles — can be a great pain management tool to add to your holistic treatment plan.
If you live with psoriatic arthritis (PsA), you’re probably familiar with the laundry list of should-be-doings that allegedly help relieve pain and reduce inflammation. I’ve tried what feels like everything, from the AIP diet for inflammation to juicing celery to taking up meditation and yoga.
Acupuncture has always been on my list of treatments to try. The traditional form of Chinese medicine involves inserting thin needles into various points of the body to help stimulate the central nervous system.
I decided to try it for myself, figuring I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Although my PsA has been mostly under control with the right combination of methotrexate, hydroxychloroquine, and hiring a personal trainer to help strengthen my stiff joints, I thought adding a new practice might be the thing I needed to finally achieve complete remission.
The ancient practice is said to work by combating pain while also decreasing the fight-or-flight response that can come with living with chronic pain.
“We have to consider various pain levels,” explains Kimberly Ertl, LAC, a licensed acupuncturist from Salinas, California. First, there’s an actual physical problem in the body, which is the origin or cause of the pain. Secondly, a stress response often heightens awareness and exacerbates pain perception.
Pain can increase your level of the stress hormone cortisol, which may increase inflammation and interfere with things like sleep and appetite. This can cause even more pain, Ertl explains. Acupuncture aims to disrupt this “pain feedback loop.”
She also points out that acupuncturists often counsel clients on nutritional strategies, breathing, and meditation techniques that can help manage inflammation and the emotional distress associated with chronic pain.
Acupuncture is not a one-and-done treatment but one part of a more holistic approach.
“I have personally seen acupuncture work with chronic inflammation and specifically to relieve psoriatic arthritis and greatly lessen flare-ups,” explains Melissa Crum, DOM, an acupuncturist and herbalist in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “I do believe acupuncture is a key piece of the puzzle, but it can be even more powerful if you have an experienced practitioner who can recommend dietary changes as well as specific herbs.”
I was so excited to try it, but in practice, it caused me too much additional anxiety to properly reap the benefits. I couldn’t get over the fact that I was being pricked with needles.
Going into my first session, I knew that my vasovagal syncope — seeing or thinking about blood makes me feel faint — might affect my results. But I thought it might be gentler than, say, undergoing a blood test. I was wrong. The sight of the needles made me feel faint.
I tried a second time, hoping that I would be able to calm myself down enough to benefit from the would-be soothing experience, but unfortunately, I just couldn’t relax. I decided that other forms of relaxation, like deep tissue massage and gentle training sessions, are better suited for me.
Don’t let my phobia stop you from exploring acupuncture, though. According to Ertl, results can be seen in as little as two visits — even for those with chronic inflammation like psoriatic arthritis.
“I love to see dramatic results within one to two visits, and that is what I aim for,” she explains. “I’ve had patients who only need to come in for one treatment and are pain-free. However, acupuncture relies on the body to heal itself. This can take time. For some people with chronic illness, we may see relief for only a short period after the acupuncture treatment, but that alone can be life changing.”
If someone is new to acupuncture, the acupuncturist may prefer to use only a few acupuncture points to see how they react to the treatment before progressing on the next visit, says Reuben Chen, MD, FAAPMR, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist with an emphasis on sports medicine and pain management.
Electrostimulation is often used, along with heating lamps or warming blankets, during the treatment to enhance benefits. After needles are removed, depending on the type of treatment, the acupuncturist may also massage acupoints afterward to promote energy flow and speed healing. “Most people feel very relaxed or more energized after the procedure,” Chen says.
Ertl notes that it makes the most sense for people to experiment with various healing modalities. The solution can sometimes be a combination of multiple treatments and lifestyle changes.
“The patients I see have the most success are those who are willing to fully embrace their own agency when it comes to finding what really works for them,” she says.
Medically reviewed on February 23, 2023
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