Autoimmune conditions are caused by any number of immune system malfunctions which cause the body to mistake its own tissues for a foreign object and produce an immune response against itself. This can happen as a result of infection, exposure to certain substances, or genetic defect.
Acupuncture is an elegant countermeasure to autoimmune disease, since it ultimately works by activating the body’s self-healing capabilities. The body has a built-in ability to heal itself, just as it has an ability to destroy harmful would-be pathogens. Whether you cut your finger, break a bone, or catch a cold, ultimately your body heals by its own mechanisms. Acupuncture is about directing that self-healing by stimulating specific areas of the body. Your acupuncturist places the needles, and your body does the rest.
What does acupuncture do for people with an autoimmune condition:
Relieves pain. Many autoimmune diseases are accompanied by pain. Acupuncture’s pain relieving capabilities are well documented, this is a common reason people seek out acupuncture treatment. These pain relieving effects are at least in part due to the activation of the body’s own pain relieving chemicals (endogenous opioids.)
Reduces inflammation. Inflammation accompanies immune response. Acupuncture has been shown to have a local and general anti-inflammatory effect. In mice, acupuncture’s counter-inflammatory effects were shown to be equivalent to glucocorticoids (steroids.) Acupuncture stimulation does, over the long term, affect mast cell (immune) dysregulation which can be a factor in these conditions.
Calms the body and relieves stress. It is not uncommon for those with autoimmune disease to cite stress as a symptom aggravator. Regular acupuncture can help lower baseline stress levels.
Adjusts parasympathetic nervous system response. Diseases such as RA, lupus, and IBS that have some aspect of cytokine mediation, also have impaired parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) ability.
It is worth noting that autoimmune diseases are complex and can occur as a constellation of several diseases at once, often with the same root cause. Beyond symptom relief, acupuncture is a valuable tool for long term management of autoimmune conditions, since part of it’s known mechanism is modulation of the immune system.
What to expect as an acupuncture patient if you have an existing autoimmune diagnosis:
Since acupuncture uses a person’s existing body mechanisms, everyone responds to acupuncture at a different rate. After an initial course of treatment, which is typically 8-12 visits, maintenance therapy is helpful in keeping the body from flare-ups (this is typically a session every 4-6 weeks). Factors affecting response include: disease progression and severity, health of the body’s signaling and circulation mechanisms, availability of the raw materials in the body used to create neurotransmitters, and diet and lifestyle factors. Usually some lessening of pain is achieved in a handful of sessions, again, depending on the factors above.
Your provider may suggest supporting the process of healing with supplements and lifestyle modifications. Compliance with these should be taken into consideration as well when determining frequency of treatment. Lasting change with these conditions can happen slowly, so it is important to be patient and communicate with your provider about expected course of treatment.
By Beth Bloomfield, L.Ac., MS