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Electro-acupuncture for Arthritis

By Jodie Gillam-Pendergast

Osteoarthritis is pretty much an inevitable part of leading a long, active and hard working life…. Whilst religion and philosophy can debate the soul that may last all eternity, our joints were definitely not designed to last forever. Pain from arthritis in biomedical terms can be attributed to degradation of the cartilage and tissues that cushion bones against each other; loss of space in a joint as synovial fluid dries up; from obstruction of joint space due to bony spurs and inflammation; from traumatic injury or over use injury; or on the other end of the spectrum: being too sedentary for too long due to illness or lack of motivation. Most of this “physical” damage can be seen on diagnostic images when the damage has been done. However, the processes that have made a joint become painful or arthritic are organically multifactorial, and whilst a joint replacement can be a good option for some, it should be the last option!

Chinese Medicine works to balance the fluctuations of internal and external environmental, physical and psychological harmonies. Phrases such as “liver yang rising” may sound ethereal and poetic, however the term is describing the physical properties of how stress can manifest in the body. Before our ancient ancestors had diagnostic imaging and pathology labs, the observation of our bodily process were described in terms of nature and physics.

For instance; When we are stressed and burning the candle at both ends our nervous system becomes flooded with cortisol (another chemical that the liver has to produce and process causing it to overwork) and our muscles and joints can become hot and inflamed - as in “heat rising” from a pot of boiling water – eventually burning up all of the fluid in the analogous pot and causing the pot to burn up dry.

Acupuncturists referred to most forms of arthritis as a Bi-Syndrome (Pron “Bee” syndrome) Bi stands for “stone” and anyone who has had a bony spur can relate to this term which describes the “nature” of a blockage. Often in Musculoskeletal interventions we use, mobilisation, massage and exercise to move the “stuckness” and improve our circulation which creates short term relief. Acupuncture may complement your current treatment regime by addressing the “heat” in the body or the biochemical repercussions of stress that can cause that hot feeling in the joints and dry up their nourishment.

Electro acupuncture is the use of electric current as a catalyst for your bodies electricity for the movement of energy in the body – the heart beat is the most obvious form of electric pulse in our body, however your body is an enormous network of circuitry… and just as the power goes off if a tree falls on the powerlines and disrupts the electricity to your house, so too can an arthritic joint become disconnected to the energy that is trying to pass through the joint to help it move, and from the joint to keep it nourished.

In meta-analysis study including 1,220 participants the researchers found:

“The electroacupuncture treatment group showed more significant improvement in pain due to knee osteoarthritis than the control group (no Electro acupuncture). Electroacupuncture treatment can relieve the pain of osteoarthritis of the knees and improve comprehensive aspects of knee osteoarthritis and the quality of life of patients with knee osteoarthritis.” (Shim etal, 2016)

Another study highlights the benefits of Electroacupuncture in reducing the inflammatory mediators that are often at play in conditions like rheumatoid arthritis:

"short-term treatment (4 weeks) with…EA effectively suppresses proinflammatory cytokines and improves pain and function in patients with symptomatic (arthritis). Higher intensity of EA stimulation provides better improvement in the disease-specific quality of life of arthritis patients and a greater modulation of cytokine secretion."

Blood samples in this study analysed:

  • apelin - seen throughout the body in brain and cardiovascular functions. Looking at a reduction in the propensity of higher levels leading to further bone growth (arthritis) or the “stones” that build up. It is observed at the surface of osteoblasts, the cell progenitors involved in bone formation.

  • IL-1β - when levels are increased people will experience more autoinflammatory responses.

  • IL-6 - when levels are increased there will an increase in autoimmune function (raised levels in rheumatoid arthritis, for example). Osteoblasts secrete IL-6 to stimulate osteoclast formation.

  • TNFα levels - raised levels lead to a strong inflammatory response. This will be seen in many autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, IBS/IBD, psoriasis, among others.

Throughout treatment all markers significantly reduced, particularly with high intensity stimulation over a course