What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture involves inserting fine needles at particular points in your skin. The therapist may stimulate the needles manually, by heat (with a dried herb called moxa) or by a small electrical current (electro-acupuncture). Practitioners sometimes treat more than one person at a time, because the needles have to be left in place for some time.

The needles are very fine, so having them inserted is rarely painful. Sometimes you may have a sensation of heaviness or tingling at the insertion site, and this is considered a good sign.

Acupuncture seems to relieve pain by diverting or changing the painful sensations that are sent to your brain from damaged tissues and by stimulating your body’s own pain-relieving hormones (endorphins and encephalins). This pain relief may only last a short time when you begin treatment, but repeated treatment (usually weekly for six or eight sessions) can bring long-term benefit, often for several months. If the pain returns, then more acupuncture may help for another few months.

As with all treatments to relieve pain (including physiotherapy, hand therapy and painkilling drugs), breaking the ‘pain cycle’ sometimes gives permanent relief. This depends on the stage of your arthritis, although acupuncture can help at almost any stage of your condition. As with many conventional treatments, it can’t cure or reverse the process of arthritis.

If you can’t tolerate conventional drugs then acupuncture may help you through a painful episode. There’s now clear scientific evidence that it can be beneficial for some conditions including low back pain. For this reason acupuncture treatment is increasingly available on the NHS in physiotherapy departments or through your GP. However, NICE guidelines do not currently recommend acupuncture for osteoarthritis.

Is it safe?

Acupuncture generally has a very good safety record. It could potentially transmit diseases if needles were re-used, but disposable needles are now standard practice, and there are strict guidelines regarding their disposal.

Feeling dizzy or faint after a session of acupuncture is fairly common, and it can occasionally cause bleeding and bruising.

If you're pregnant it's important to discuss acupuncture with your doctor or therapist as certain acupuncture points should be avoided during pregnancy.