Acupuncture involves inserting tiny needles into a person’s skin. A version known as electro-acupuncture adds a mild electric current. The needles are inserted at some of the 2,000 mapped points along what are called meridians or channels.In Chinese terms, acupuncture restores the optimal flow of energy – called Qi(pronounced chee) – in the body.
In a 2011 Chinese study looking at electro-acupuncture and traditional acupuncture, both significantly lowered tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF-α) and vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF). “Both TNF-α and VEGF are associated with chronic inflammation,” explains Nathan Wei, MD, director of the arthritis treatment center in Frederick, Md. “In particular, TNF-α appears to play a pivotal role in the chronic inflammation and joint destruction that characterizes RA. That’s why so many of the biologic medications target TNF-α.”
In a 2008 Arthritis & Rheumatism review of eight acupuncture studies involving a total of 536 patients with RA, five studies reported a reduction in erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), three saw a reduction in C-reactive protein (CRP), and one study described a significant drop in both. Both ESR and CRP are markers of inflammation in the body. Several of the studies also reported decreased pain and a reduction in morning stiffness.
How acupuncture affects inflammatory markers like TNF-α is unknown. “No one has figured out one single mechanism for acupuncture’s effects,” says Jeffrey I. Gold, PhD, director of the pediatric pain management clinic at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles.
Gold explains that MRI studies show that acupuncture sites specifically induce responses in various portions of the brain. Acupuncture can possibly effect any organ or system: immunological, neurological, hormonal and psychological. “It doesn’t only block pain signals,” he says.
Experts do know that acupuncture relieves pain by stimulating the release of endorphins, the body’s own natural painkillers, says Jamie Starkey, lead acupuncturist for the Tanya I. Edwards, MD Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine at Cleveland Clinic. “We’re activating the peripheral nervous system, which then activates the central nervous system, so that the brain begins to release endorphins.” Acupuncture may relieve pain locally, she says, by not only releasing neurotransmitters, but also by having an anti-inflammatory effect. “How exactly it happens, we are still researching.”