Psoriatic arthritis (PsA) is an autoimmune disease double-whammy. About 15% of people who experience itchy, flaky skin from psoriasis also have sore, swollen joints from arthritis.
When your joints hurt, a bunch of pointy needles might not be your go-to for relief. Makes sense. But there is some evidence that this traditional Chinese medicine practice relieves pain. The question is: Does it help with PsA pain?
Read on to learn more about this alternative treatment before you give needling a try.
Practitioners may do acupuncture in a few different ways, but the basic idea is that they use needles to stimulate various pressure points around your body. These aren’t thick needles like the ones your doc uses to give you a shot — they’re thin and pretty painless.
People may try acupuncture for many health conditions, such as morning sickness and headaches. But pain relief is its main use.
So, how does acupuncture work?
Ask an Eastern medicine doc and they’ll probably tell you that it rebalances your body’s energy flow, or qi (which sounds like “chee”).
Western medicine hasn’t fully figured out how acupuncture works, but the general idea is that it triggers your nervous system to release chemicals that help your body heal and relieve pain.
People with PsA are definitely using acupuncture, but does it help? That’s hard to know. As the authors of a 2020 review put it, studies on acupuncture for PsA are “conspicuously absent.”
The research that exists on acupuncture for joint pain could offer some clues. But the results of those studies? Well, they’re mixed.
A 2018 review of 43 studies on acupuncture for rheumatoid arthritis found that it helped improve movement and quality of life. The authors concluded that it’s worth trying, though they admitted the studies weren’t very well designed.
Another 2018 review on acupuncture for osteoarthritis found that real acupuncture didn’t relieve hip pain any better than fake acupuncture.
So, when it comes to acupuncture for PsA, the verdict is that it’s promising, but it needs lots more evidence.
We don’t know the answer for sure, but there are a few ideas floating around. One is that acupuncture reduces inflammation by acting on certain pathways in the body. Inflammation is what fuels joint pain and swelling in PsA.
It could also be that acupuncture dials down the overactive immune system that’s attacking the joints or that it triggers the release of endorphins — your body’s natural pain relievers.
Or maybe the pain relief that people experience in studies is all in their heads — sort of. It’s called the placebo effect. That’s when you feel better because you think you’re going to feel better, not because the treatment is actually doing anything.
What are the best acupuncture points for psoriatic arthritis?
- Large intestine channel 4 (LI4) on the back side of the hand between the thumb and first finger, which activates the immune system and helps with pain
- Pericardium 6 (PC6) on the forearm above the wrist, which helps with pain in the upper body
- Spleen channel 6 (SP6) on the inner leg above the ankle, which treats immune problems
- Spleen channel 10 (SP10) above the knee, which circulates and cools the blood
- Stomach channel 36 (ST36) on the front of the leg below the knee, which treats fatigue and immune problems
Getting acupuncture is a lot more relaxing than you might think. The lights are dimmed, and calming music plays in the background. The vibes are more “spa” than “medical procedure.”
You lie on a table, and your acupuncturist chooses points along your body’s energy channels, which are called meridians. They put the needles into your skin just a little bit — deep enough to reach the muscle. The needles stay in for up to 30 minutes. They shouldn’t hurt, because they’re about as thin as a hair.
Acupuncture is very safe when it’s done by a pro. You might have a little bit of pain or a bruise where the needles go in, but that’s about it.
If you have a bleeding disorder such as hemophilia, are taking blood thinners, or have a metal allergy, talk with your doctor to find out whether acupuncture is right for you.
Your risks increase if you go to an unqualified practitioner. We’re talking about possible infections, punctured organs, and nervous system damage. That’s why it’s important to go to a certified acupuncture practitioner.
Since at least some studies have shown that acupuncture may help with arthritis pain, insurance should cover it, right? But that’s not always the case.
A 2022 study found that 57.5% of acupuncture visits in 2018–2019 were paid for out of pocket. But that’s down from an average of 66.9% of visits paid out of pocket in 2010–2011, so more insurance plans are covering the cost.
Check your coverage before you head to the acupuncturist’s office so you don’t wind up with a surprise bill.
Acupuncture uses fine needles to stimulate pressure points around your body. Studies suggest that it’s helpful for a variety of medical conditions, but research is mixed on acupuncture for PsA specifically.
Still, there’s probably no harm in trying it, as long as you find a certified acupuncturist who knows what they’re doing.