Acupuncture and Connective Tissue Disorders: How Treatment Can Help
Connective tissue disorders are often characterized by debilitating pain and other high-impact symptoms. Worse, as connective tissue is found everywhere in the body, symptoms may be difficult to isolate and treat. What’s called for is treatment that delivers a system-level response – a therapy like acupuncture.
Although eastern medicine practitioners have relied on acupuncture for thousands of years and in hundreds of medical conditions, the physiological link between the practice and its benefits are only beginning to be understood.
But research is slowly revealing what practitioners have known for a long time – that acupuncture can influence whole-body health. For people with connective tissue disorders, that means real potential for relief.
What Connective Tissue Disorders Can Acupuncture Help With?
There are a few major connective tissue diseases that acupuncture can help with. They include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
In addition to diagnosable conditions like these, acupuncture also has noted analgesic effects on myofascial pain. The fascia is a layer of connective tissue that penetrates into and wraps around muscle. Occasionally, the fascia can twist and knot in places, termed trigger points, resulting in moderate to severe pain. Acupuncturists can target these trigger points during treatment and release the knots, thereby resolving pain.
The Curious Connection Between Acupuncture and Connective Tissue
Acupuncture’s efficacy in connective tissue disorders is notable. In fact, it may hint at a deeper connection between acupuncture and connective tissue.
It’s a well-known fact among acupuncturists that most acupuncture points are located in spots that sit between muscle and bone – areas where connective tissue is abundant. And the most effective acupuncture points – those used in the largest variety of health conditions – are located in areas where connective tissue is densely layered.
Is this a coincidence? Some researchers don’t think so. One research team out of the University of Vermont, for example, believes that connective tissue may be what responds to acupuncture needles. Anyone who has received acupuncture is familiar with the warm, tingly sensations associated with needle insertion and movement – a feeling known as “qi sensation.” The University of Vermont researchers believe that this feeling, which can radiate to and from the acupuncture point, may indicate that acupuncture needles transmit nerve signaling through connective tissue – in a wave-like pattern that affects the entire body.
How Does Acupuncture Help Relieve Connective Tissue Pain and Other Symptoms?
Given acupuncture’s potential effects on connective tissue, there are good reasons for practitioners to deploy it for related disorders. Here’s what recent research has to say about acupuncture’s efficacy in lupus, fibromyalgia, and RA:
Lupus is an autoimmune disorder that can cause symptoms throughout the body and in a variety of organ systems. It’s characterized by fatigue, joint and musculoskeletal pain, joint inflammation and stiffness, facial rash and redness, and fever. Every lupus case is highly individualized, though, and may present with unique symptoms.
There isn’t much research on acupuncture and lupus, but a 2008 study published in Lupus struck a positive note. Although the sample size was small (24 patients), the eight-member group that received acupuncture (the other two eight-member groups received either minimal needling or usual care) noted significant decreases in fatigue and pain intensity.
Further, acupuncture’s proven anti-inflammatory effects are also helpful in patients with lupus. It’s these anti-inflammatory capabilities that may explain why acupuncture is also effective against joint pain and stiffness.
Fibromyalgia is a fairly common connective tissue disorder, affecting up to four percent of U.S. adults – though it’s more common in women. The condition is characterized by widespread muscle pain and tenderness, along with fatigue, mood changes, sleep problems and memory problems.
Fibromyalgia is a challenge for physicians to treat. In fact, the cause of fibromyalgia isn’t understood, though it may have to do with hormonal changes or changes in the way the body registers pain signals.
In both cases, acupuncture may help. Multiple meta-analyses, including one published in 2019 and one published in 2021, both concluded that acupuncture could be effective for fibromyalgia pain, fatigue, and sleep disturbances. Notably, researchers found that acupuncture was well tolerated among fibromyalgia patients, even with their heightened sensitivity to pain and discomfort.
Another autoimmune disorder, RA is characterized by joint pain and stiffness throughout the body. The condition is chronic and tends to flare up, so symptoms may be worse on some days and minimal during others.
RA is also difficult to treat, like other chronic, systemic connective tissue problems. Acupuncture, though, is increasingly recommended as a useful adjunctive therapy.
One meta-analysis, published in the 2018 issue of Evidence Based Complementary Alternative Medicine, considered 43 human and animal studies. After reviewing the available evidence, the research team concluded that acupuncture was effective in reducing pain in both animal and human subjects. Though less conclusive, researchers also noted potential anti-inflammatory effects in RA patients.
Acupuncture is a Promising Therapeutic Option for Connective Tissue Disorder, But Only if it’s Provided by a Licensed Practitioner
Acupuncture has a compelling, multi-millennium history of efficacy in a huge variety of health conditions. They include connective tissue disorders such as lupus, fibromyalgia, and rheumatoid arthritis.
These conditions are all difficult to treat, but acupuncture’s ability to stimulate the nervous system and encourage the body to release pain killing, self-healing compounds can make a major difference for patients.