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  • Writer's pictureMarieke Pieterman, L.Ac.

How acupuncture reduces swelling and pain in rheumatoid arthritis

By Marieke A. Pieterman

Acupuncture reduces swelling and pain in rheumatoid arthritis
Acupuncture reduces swelling and pain in rheumatoid arthritis

About 1.5 million people in the United States have a rheumatoid arthritis (RA) diagnosis.

Would you recognize RA if you saw it in someone? Ever notice someone with red, swollen, and deformed fingers trying to tie their shoes or swing a golf club?

It can be really difficult and excruciatingly painful – and nearly three times as many women have the disease as men. In fact, RA can begin as early as age 30 through age 60 in women.


Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation mostly in the hands, feet as well as the knees and can be red and swollen in appearance. This inflammation can wreak havoc in the joints themselves (e.g., fingers, wrists, feet, ankles, and knee joints), causing fluid buildup and breaking down the joint lining. In addition, this inflammation can erode the bone itself, causing painful deformities. As an autoimmune disorder, the body’s own immune system attacks its own tissue, and in severe cases, can even impact internal organs.

Diagnosing RA is often difficult as there is no single blood test that defines the diagnosis, but rather a number of blood tests. Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), C-reactive protein (CRP), rheumatoid factor, and anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide antibodies are tests that are helpful in making the rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis. Later, these tests will be discussed in further detail. Furthermore, imaging via an ultrasound, MRI, and x-ray are also critical tools in confirming a diagnosis.

A large number of individual research studies have already examined the significant impact of acupuncture on rheumatoid arthritis. This particular group of researchers decided to examine these individual research studies and their results, analyze them in aggregate form, and summarize the results, which is called a meta-analysis.


A meta-analysis is a statistical analysis that combines the results of a number of different scientific studies in an effort to increase the “power” of statistically significant results over just one individual research study.


This particular meta-analysis resulted in showing how acupuncture benefits patients with rheumatoid arthritis. The studies revealed that acupuncture prevented or slowed down the joint degradation, reduced pain levels in the joints, and increased mobility in the joint for the research participants -- greatly increasing the quality of life that these RA participants experienced.

The primary outcome results that these studies included were 1) quantifying pain levels via various pain scales; 2) morning stiffness, 3) pain related disability, 4) joint swelling characteristics and joint diameter 5) number of swollen joints, 6) skin temperature, and 7) the arthritis index.

Across the various studies, quality of life was measured using the Rheumatoid Arthritis Quality of Life Questionnaire (RAQoL), the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index, the Health Assessment Questionnaire (HAQ), and the short-form 36 health survey. PET scans were used to measure changes in inflammation as well as x-rays that revealed changes in the hands.

In addition, there were two additional objective measures that were also taken: serum levels of inflammatory and anti-inflammatory biomarkers and antioxidant levels.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) causing deformities in both the fingers and toes
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) causing deformities in both the fingers and toes


Across these research studies, a number of acupuncture points were applied to the rheumatoid arthritis research participants and were shown to produce significant changes in specific inflammatory and anti-inflammatory biomarkers in the body.

In these research studies, acupuncture was found to regulate the following:

  • erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR): a simple, non-specific test that measures inflammation in the body that can be due to a number of diseases including infections, autoimmune diseases, as well as cancer.

  • C-reactive protein (CRP): a protein in the blood plasma, produced by the liver, and whose levels increase in response to inflammation in the body.

  • rheumatoid factor (RF): a protein produced by your immune system that can attack healthy tissue in your body.

  • Interleukins: small proteins produced by certain lymphocytes (a form of white blood cells) and regulate immune responses.

  • nuclear factor kappa B (NF-𝜅 B): a protein complex that reads and copies the DNA (a transcription factor) and is activated by a number of things including stress, infection, free radicals and can cause inflammation in the body.

  • tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-𝛼): a protein involved in systemic inflammation throughout the body.

  • vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF): is a protein that helps encourage the growth of new blood vessels.

In addition to the numerous inflammatory and anti-inflammatory biomarkers that acupuncture can regulate, these studies also found that acupuncture triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s own natural pain killers, by reducing your perception of pain.

One study found that acupuncture reduced oxidative stress (the imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in your body) and subsequent inflammation. Another study found that acupuncture down-regulated levels of antibodies (IgG, IgA, and IgM) found in the immune system.

After a full review of each individual research study in the meta-analysis, the researchers concluded that “acupuncture alone or combined with other treatment modalities is beneficial to the clinical conditions of RA without adverse effects reported and can improve function and quality of life and is worth trying.”


Are you struggling with red, swollen and deformed joints and want relief for your rheumatoid arthritis? Don’t delay, your quality of life is important – give Holistic Heart Acupuncture a call today to schedule your appointment – we want to help bring you relief!

Acupuncture Alleviates Rheumatoid Arthritis Swelling And Pain



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