Over 39 percent of Americans use some form of complementary or alternative medicine (CAM), according to a survey conducted by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the National Center for Health Statistics. Most people turn to these treatments for musculoskeletal problems such as back and neck pain — and joint pain, which is a common symptom of arthritis.

CAM is often appealing when drugs and other therapies aren’t effective. One CAM treatment, acupuncture, is growing in popularity with arthritis sufferers. It’s a Chinese medical system that’s been used for over 2000 years to treat and prevent various diseases and ailments, including rheumatism and pain.

Practitioners believe that acupuncture enhances the body’s natural ability to heal itself. During a session an acupuncturist inserts hair-thin needles into acupuncture points in the body. These points are found along meridians or energy pathways, which the Chinese mapped out centuries ago.

Evidence that acupuncture can treat arthritis is increasing. In a study conducted at the Charité University in Berlin researchers divided 712 patients into two groups; the first group received acupuncture treatment immediately and the second group began their treatment three months later. Results were determined using the WOMAC osteoarthritis index, which measures the degree of pain, stiffness and joint performance. Patients in both groups were allowed to continue using anti-inflammatory drugs.

At the beginning of the treatment all patients scored approximately 50 on the scale. By the three-month mark the acupuncture group scored 30, while the second group yet to receive treatment remained at 50. After six months, the second group began to show a similar level of improvement as the first group after three months of treatment.

While the study had its critics, due to it not being double-blind and the varying levels of experience of the acupuncturists, another study conducted at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore confirms the benefits of acupuncture treatment for arthritis.

In this study reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers focused on the effect of acupuncture on knee osteoarthritis in 570 patients. They had the condition in both knees and the average age was 65. They received one of three treatments for 26 weeks in combination with their regular pain reliever and anti-inflammatory medications.

The first treatment was acupuncture; the second was sham acupuncture where patients feel a sensation but no needle is inserted; and the third treatment was a self-help course for managing pain. After eight weeks, compared to the other two groups, the patients in the acupuncture group had significant improvement in function, and by week 14 their pain was significantly reduced.

What to Expect from a Treatment

When an acupuncturist inserts the fine needles along acupuncture points you may feel a warm or tingling sensation. Some patients also report feeling very relaxed. Sessions vary in length and may be combined with other techniques such as heat, suction (cupping), or manual manipulation of the points. Only sterile, one-time-use needles are used.

Who Can Perform Acupuncture?

According to the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture, each state has different regulations about who is allowed to practice acupuncture and under what conditions. However, you can find a list of the current State Laws on acupuncture. A good rule of thumb is to search for a health professional who is licensed to perform acupuncture and who has over 200 hours of practice. Also, ask for referrals.

Are There Any Side Effects?

Acupuncture is considered relatively safe. However, some complications have been reported. Most were minor, such as bruising, dizziness or fainting, but there have also been cases of spinal cord injury and pneumothorax (air or gas collecting in the chest or around the lungs).