Yes, Acupuncture May Help Relieve Joint Pain and Aid Sleep

Julia Malacoff
by Julia Malacoff
Share it:
Yes, Acupuncture May Help Relieve Joint Pain and Aid Sleep

If you ask around, chances are you’ll find at least one person who swears by acupuncture. In fact, the technique, which hails from traditional Chinese medicine and involves placing tiny needles at specific points throughout the body, might help people trying to lose weight.

If you talk to people familiar with the practice, the potential benefits go far beyond weight loss, particularly for active people.

DOES ACUPUNCTURE REALLY WORK?

Acupuncture is nothing new, and because of that, there’s been quite a bit of research on its effectiveness. Still, some people are skeptical it works at all, likely due to the fact it’s not based in Western medicine. In terms of the research, results appear mixed, with studies and reviews showing benefits for some purposes (such as easing lower back pain) and not much benefit for others (like helping people quit smoking).

But many researchers involved in these studies are often careful to note in their write-ups that just because research doesn’t seem conclusive doesn’t mean that acupuncture doesn’t work. Acupuncture is tricky to study for several reasons. One of the most prominent is it’s hard to create a blind control group to compare those who receive acupuncture with those who don’t; it’s pretty obvious whether you’re being stuck with needles or not, for example. Researchers also struggle to control for the placebo effect, as well as people’s pre-existing beliefs about whether or not acupuncture works.

That said, we have some information on how acupuncture could work. “There are various methods in which acupuncture is thought to exert its beneficial effects,” explains Dr. Elizabeth M. Manejias, a physiatrist at the Hospital for Special Surgery. “Research has shown that it reduces the local concentration of pain-inducing chemicals around the needle insertion points.” In other words, people may feel less pain in the areas where needles are inserted. “Insertion of needles with electrical stimulation (also known as electroacupuncture) activates the central nervous system and releases chemicals such as endorphins that help patients feel better. The release of these chemicals are thought to support the body’s natural healing mechanisms,” Manejias adds.

That said, many acupuncture practitioners aren’t too concerned about “convincing” people it works. “No amount of scientific literature will convince some people, and that’s OK,” says Scott Schauland, registered acupuncturist and owner of Ginkgo Leaf Acupuncture.

In terms of athletes and active people specifically, one thing that often gets them on board with trying acupuncture is the fact many professional sports teams and other organizations employ acupuncturists as part of their team. “The San Francisco Giants, New York Jets, San Francisco Ballet and many, many teams have acupuncturists on staff to help with their players,” says Kim Peirano, DACM, a licensed acupuncturist. “I think this itself is a great testament to how acupuncture is helpful for athletes.”

3 WAYS ACUPUNCTURE CAN HELP?

1

RELIEVE MUSCLE AND JOINT PAIN

If you’re sidelined from exercise with an injury or pain, you may be able to recover faster in general by using acupuncture, Schauland says.

Manejias, who is an acupuncturist with a subspecialty in sports medicine, uses acupuncture and dry needling to treat various musculoskeletal issues. “Some of the conditions that I treat and have had success with are acute injuries such as joint sprain or muscle/tendon injuries.” Manejias also uses acupuncture in patients with herniated disks and arthritis.

It’s worth noting that Manejias also uses physical therapy in conjunction with acupuncture to help treat pain and injuries. That way, people can get stronger and improve the movement patterns that may have contributed to their injury, while also getting pain relief.

2

STRENGTHENING THE MIND-BODY CONNECTION

Acupuncture has been shown to help decrease performance anxiety and stress in young athletes. Stress in the body occurs in two main ways, Peirano says. You’re probably familiar with the first: mental and cognitive stress. The second way stress affects us in sports performance is physically or somatically, according to Peirano. “This is how our body and muscles react and function. It’s whether or not we are physically capable or how our stamina holds up. This brain-body connection is the root of peak sports performance, and acupuncture is a very useful tool to help improve the functions of both by decreasing stress and anxiety of the brain and the body.”

3

PROMOTING BETTER SLEEP AND RECOVERY

Because acupuncture is so good at relieving pain and soreness from overworked muscles, it can also help alleviate some of the stresses we experience from our training routines. “It can decrease recovery time and help people sleep better so that they can recover even faster,” says Philip Jean, the resident acupuncturist at Fit Club NY. Maneijias agrees, noting that her patients who receive acupuncture usually report improvement in sleep, heightened relaxation and reduced stress.

In fact, acupuncture can be a great alternative for people who rely on over-the-counter painkillers to deal with muscle soreness when recovering from a workout, Jean says.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

  • Find a licensed or registered practitioner. Depending on where you live, you want to find either a Licensed Acupuncturist (LAc) or a registered acupuncturist. Acupuncture from a qualified practitioner is very safe, Maneijias emphasizes (risk of severe adverse events is reported to be 0.024% with a qualified acupuncturist), but it’s important to make sure you’re in skilled hands.
  • Talk to your provider. “There are certain conditions that you should discuss with your health care provider before initiating treatment. These include bleeding disorders, skin infections, lymphedema or pacemaker placement,” Manejias says. People can still receive acupuncture with these conditions, but they may need modifications.
  • Give yourself a few sessions to notice results. “For those who are trying acupuncture, I would suggest giving it at least 3–4 sessions,” Schauland says. “If there’s literally no change in your condition, then consider trying a different acupuncturist. In some cases, it might also mean that acupuncture isn’t the right modality to use. No form of medicine works 100% of the time for everyone.”

Unlock an experience that’s like having a dietitian, trainer and coach at your fingertips. Sign up for Premium for expert guidance and tools to help you reach your personal health goals.

About the Author

Julia Malacoff
Julia Malacoff

Julia (@jmalacoff) is a seasoned writer and editor who focuses on fitness, nutrition, and health. She’s also a certified personal trainer and Precision Nutrition Level 1 coach. Based in Amsterdam, she bikes every day and travels around the world in search of tough sweat sessions and the best vegetarian fare.

Related

Never Miss a Post!

Turn on MyFitnessPal desktop notifications and stay up to date on the latest health and fitness advice.

Great!

Click the 'Allow' Button Above

Awesome!

You're all set.

You’re taking control of your fitness and wellness journey, so take control of your data, too. Learn more about your rights and options. Or click here to opt-out of certain cookies.