Can Acupuncture Help Treat My Fibromyalgia and Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Question: I have fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis, and I'm only 29. It's hard for me to walk, and sometimes I can't even tie my own shoes because the pain is so bad. I'm on several medications and go to physical therapy, but these don't always work for me. I'm interested in trying acupuncture but don't know if it will help. What can I expect in an acupuncture treatment session?
Glasgow, KY

Acupuncture needles and Chinese writingsSome Western pain management treatments include acupuncture. Photo Source:

Answer: That's a fantastic question, and I'm so glad you're interested in seeing whether acupuncture can ease your fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis.

As you mentioned, you go to physical therapy and take several medications—both are very common first-line treatments for fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis. But some people find that they need something more than these treatments to ease their pain and other symptoms.

With fibromyalgia, you can experience extreme fatigue and widespread chronic pain, while with rheumatoid arthritis, it's common to have pain, swelling, and stiffness in your joints.

Acupuncture is part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM)—an ancient medicine practice that treats a wide range of conditions.

A TCM-certified practitioner treats your symptoms individually rather than solely treating your fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis.

One of the core principles of traditional Chinese medicine is: "Where there is pain, there is a poor flow of Qi." Qi (or Chi) is the name of the life force (energy) that flows through the body. TCM practitioners believe that when your Qi is blocked, it can create pain or illness, which may explain your pain and other symptoms—not being able to walk or tie your shoes, for instance.

Acupuncture can help relieve the pain by helping support a more efficient flow of Qi through the painful areas.

Here's what you can expect in a typical acupuncture session: An acupuncture treatment session usually begins with a meeting with the acupuncturist. If it's your first session, you'll talk about your medical history and your symptoms.

Depending on the acupuncturist's preference, you may be fully clothed or you might wear a medical gown during the session.

You'll lie on a treatment table and the acupuncturist will insert several hair—thin, sterilized needles to free up your Qi channels—also called meridians-located throughout your body. The needles will stay in your body for 20 to 45 minutes.

In addition to inserting these very small needles, you may be treated with moxibustion, an herb that's sometimes used to stimulate circulation—important for fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis—and create a smoother flow of blood and Qi. The acupuncturist may also use electrical stimulation, which uses a very small amount of electricity to reduce your pain and other symptoms. Your acupuncturist will explain everything to you in detail before your treatment session.

After an acupuncture treatment session, you may notice your pain has improved. That may be in part because acupuncture can trigger endorphins. These feel-good hormones released by your brain are natural painkillers, and they can help decrease pain perception.

In future sessions, you and your acupuncturist will talk about what has changed—such as whether your symptoms have gotten better or worse—since your last treatment.

You may require several regular acupuncture sessions before you begin to notice a reduction in pain and other fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, but everyone is different. For example, it may take one session for you to notice a difference in your symptoms, or it may take up to 5 sessions to relieve your pain.

Before using acupuncture to treat fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, have a conversation with your doctor.