Lupus and Acupuncture: Using Complementary Therapy to Manage Your Symptoms
Estimated to be worth over $210 billion by 2026, the complementary and alternative medicines’ market has taken off like wildfire as many seek a wide variety of ways to fight the ravages of illness and stress. Many swear by the curative powers of practices such as massage therapy and acupuncture as ways to assist in healing. If so many of us are turning to these options in order to improve our well-being, could something like acupuncture be worthwhile in the management of lupus symptoms?
- How can acupuncture manage your lupus symptoms?
- Choosing the Practitioner Who is Right for You
- In Conclusion
An ancient Chinese practice that dates back over 2000 years, acupuncture is the placement of tiny, fine needles, electric current or heat to specific areas of the body – meridians – in order to provide relief from discomfort. Elizabeth Palermo of LiveScience spoke with Dr. Ting Bao, an integrative medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. According to Dr. Bao, western scientists have developed several hypotheses about how acupuncture works. One of the key hypotheses, states Bao, is that “acupuncture works through neurohormonal pathways. Basically, you put the needle through specific points in the body and stimulate the nerve. The nerve actually sends signals to the brain, and the brain releases neural hormones such as beta-Endorphins. By doing that, the patient may feel euphoric, or happy, and this increases the pain threshold and they feel less pain.”
Is acupuncture painful?
If you have discussed alternative therapies with your healthcare practitioner and have agreed to explore acupuncture, as someone with lupus, you may be worried that you’ll be adding more pain to the discomfort you already often feel. It is actually a common misconception that acupuncture hurts though you may feel some sensations during treatment – individuals report feeling warmth, “electric” sensations, tingling or dull aches. These feelings typically dissipate quickly, but if they don’t, a good acupuncturist will listen to your concerns and remove the needles immediately. As someone who just started seeing an acupuncturist for anxiety and an achy shoulder, adding insult to injury was my primary concern. I didn’t want to walk away feeling worse than when I walked in. I honestly didn’t feel a thing except for one needle she placed in my scalp, but even that feeling disappeared as quickly as it came. I soon found myself relaxing into my zero-gravity chair, enjoying the Hawaiian slack-key guitar music playing in the background, wishing I could stay there for the rest of the afternoon in peace!
Is acupuncture safe?
Rest assured that acupuncture is also completely safe. The National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health cites that that few complications from acupuncture have been reported unless nonsterile needles were used or the individual was improperly treated. According to the NIH, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) actually regulates acupuncture needles as “medical devices” and these devices need to meet certain criteria and standards such as sterility, nontoxicity and they must be labeled for “single use by qualified practitioners only.” Later, we’ll discuss working with your healthcare practitioner and doing your research to vet reputable, licensed acupuncturists.
How can acupuncture manage lupus symptoms?
In a seminal study published in 2008, researchers C. M. Greco et al., from the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing, studied healthcare practices and discovered that out of 707 individuals with SLE, 48% were integrating alternative therapies, including acupuncture, into their treatment plans.
Dr. Greco and her research partners also conducted a more focused study. Though the number of participants was small, the results showed promise. Out of 22 individuals with SLE who completed 10 sessions of acupuncture over a 5 – 6-week period, 40% of these participants reported an approximate “30% improvement on standard measures of pain.” The researchers noted that these same individuals also reported a 25% improvement in fatigue.
A case study published in 2010 in Acupuncture in Medicine reported that a 45-year old woman with SLE and Raynaud’s experienced relief from pain and cold after receiving 14 treatments of electroacupuncture (needle insertion and electric stimulus at the insertion point). At the woman’s last session of electroacupuncture, she reported that “the cold in her fingers and toes had eased and Raynaud’s phenomenon had disappeared.”
The Journal of Ayurveda & Integrative Medicine published a case study in 2014 which followed a 41-year old woman with SLE who received daily acupuncture treatments along with massage therapy. After a course of 30 treatments, the woman showed a “marked reduction in daytime sleepiness and sleep disorder respectively compared with before intervention.”
Choosing the Practitioner Who is Right for You
There are several steps you can take in finding a good practitioner that will meet your needs:
- Check your coverage with your insurance provider – find out if alternative therapies such as acupuncture are covered by your insurance. Many carriers are more progressive these days and include integrative health and alternative therapies – especially acupuncture – as part of their plans. If this is not a covered benefit, many practitioners and clinics do offer sliding-scale payment options. So, it doesn’t hurt to ask!
- Ask for referrals and read client reviews – if your insurance carrier covers acupuncture, they may provide you with a list of practitioners. You can also ask your healthcare practitioner or friends/family if they know of anyone. Once you’ve received some referrals, go online to websites such as Yelp and Google initially to see if any reviews have been left – reading what others have to say will give you some preliminary insight as to whether or not the acupuncturist may be a good fit for you.
- Ask about the practitioner’s experience and verify their credentials – if you are at the point where you are ready to start contacting acupuncturists, make sure to ask the if they have experience treating clients with lupus or any overlap diseases you may have. Ask specific questions about the number of clients they’ve treated with conditions similar to yours, their success rate in treating these individuals, and complication rates as well as any complications you may encounter. Verify that the acupuncturist is licensed and where they received their training. The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture (org) provides comprehensive information about state licensing requirements as well as practitioners in your area. You can also verify the information they provide – as well as if they’ve had any complaints registered against them – on Healthgrades.com.
Dr. Derek Kirkham, a licensed acupuncturist in Seattle, also notes that the ideal acupuncturist has strong communication skills which include:
- Asking and answering questions – Kirkham states that “an acupuncturist who asks questions is a good acupuncturist.” They should want to get to know you and what your needs and concerns are as well as be able to provide reassurance, guidance and education.
- Listening – your symptoms may change from visit to visit and a good practitioner should want to be in tune to that in order to adjust treatment as necessary. They should listen and be open to how you are feeling and responding and show compassion and care. You should never feel rushed through your appointment or like you are being unheard.
- Discussing your treatment plan and related costs with you – nothing should come as a surprise, and you should know during your first visit what the course of treatment looks like and any associated costs. If the plan changes or the acupuncturist’s rates change, you should know upfront before feeling discomfort or receiving a bill you can’t afford to pay.
There are other red flags you should always be wary of when seeing a practitioner for the first time. These include: the cleanliness of the clinic/office, convenience and flexibility of scheduling appointments, how comfortable you feel when you’re there (if you are getting bad vibes aside from normal first-time jitters, it may not be the place for you), and the openness and willingness of the acupuncturist to engage meaningfully with you.
While admittedly more research needs to be done on the benefits of acupuncture, the studies to date, show clear promise. It’s an exciting time as researchers explore and investigate more and more effective treatment options for the management of lupus symptoms. If you and your healthcare practitioner are considering integrating acupuncture into your treatment plan, hopefully this article has given you the information you need to be an informed consumer and gain more control over your own healthcare and overall well-being.
Acupuncture: In depth. (n.d.). Retrieved from: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/acupuncture/introduction
Complementary & alternative medicine market worth $210.81 billion by 2026. (2019). Retrieved from: https://www.grandviewresearch.com/press-release/global-alternative-complementary-medicine-therapies-market
Donoyama, N. & Okoshi, N. (2017). Electroacupuncture therapy for arthralgia and Raynaud’s phenomenon in a patient with systemic lupus erythematosus. Retrieved from:
Greco, C.M., Kao, A.H., Maksimowicz-McKinnon, K. Glick, R.M., Houze, M., Sereika, S.M., Balk, J. & Manzi, S. (2008). Acupuncture for systemic lupus erythematosus: A pilot RCT feasibility and safety study. Retrieved from:
Kirkham, D. (2015). How to choose the best acupuncturist, and the right one for you. Retrieved from: http://acupuncturistseattle.com/acupuncture-learning-center/choose-best-acupuncturist/
Lewis, S. (2019). 7 tips for choosing an acupuncturist. Retrieved from: https://www.healthgrades.com/explore/7-tips-for-choosing-an-acupuncturist
Mooventhan, A. & Nivethitha, L. (2014). Effects of acupuncture and massage on pain, quality of sleep and health related quality of life in patient with systemic lupus erythematosus. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4204291/pdf/JAIM-5-186.pdf
Palermo, E. (2017). What is acupuncture? Retrieved from: https://www.livescience.com/29494-acupuncture.html
Author: Liz Heintz
Liz Heintz is a technical and creative writer who received her BA in Communications, Advocacy, and Relational Communications from Marylhurst University in Lake Oswego, Oregon. She most recently worked for several years in the healthcare industry. A native of San Francisco, California, Liz now calls the beautiful Pacific Northwest home.
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