Chronic Inflammatory and Autoimmune Conditions — Insights from Beijing

It is well known that acupuncture is excellent at treating pain, although it’s perhaps more common to think of this as everyday neck and shoulder pain, back pain, or pain following some kind of accident or sporting injury.

However, pain is one of many symptoms experienced by people suffering from chronic conditions, such as arthritis, ME and fibromyalgia. And in spite of a range of sophisticated drugs to suppress the inflammatory process, the symptoms of such conditions are often not fully controlled by western pharmaceuticals, leaving patients with a range of symptoms which, while not life threatening, significantly affect their quality of life. So, what does acupuncture have to offer people suffering from these, and other common inflammatory and auto-immune conditions such as Crohn’s and colitis? Can acupuncture really help?

The following is an account of a case in Dr Wang’s private clinic, Beijing, where I was observing for 4 weeks in October 2013, and it’s worth telling because it illustrates a few important points about the difference acupuncture can make.

The patient was a tiny, frail, 73 year old lady who had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis for most of her life. Her condition had been treated with western pharmaceutical drugs for many years.

When I first saw her, she had been coming for treatment for a few weeks, but had previously attended in April 2012. At that time, she was in a wheel chair and had quite severe pain, swelling and heat in her knees. However, she had some ability to stand and walk. She came for a handful of treatments and seemed to respond well. The clinic did not see her again until September/October 2013. When she returned in late 2013 it was with even less ability to flex her knees, ankles and wrists because of the pain and swelling. As a result, she found it almost impossible to stand, let alone walk. Staff in the clinic also noticed that she was extremely thin. Unfortunately, this is the nature of chronic inflammatory conditions – they can progress, with periodic flare ups, and indirectly affect other aspects of health.

At most, Dr Wang used 12 needles for each treatment, expertly choosing points to treat the pain in her joints and other problems including tinnitus, dizziness and blurred vision. He also prescribed herbs for her low body weight and poor nutritional condition. Over the period I was observing I saw her treated on 8 occasions, noticing a distinct reduction in the size of her knees and ankles, until eventually I saw her able to get out of her wheel chair and walk. She also gained weight, and looked less frail.

In all, the patient had 12 or more treatments by the time I last saw her, and was continuing her treatment. While it took a number of treatments – twice per week – to reduce the pain and swelling in her limbs to the extent that she could stand and walk, she improved from the start of her course of treatment. And as the pain and swelling reduced, the patient regained some independence and quality of life. She was in a condition whereby she would have needed help to get out of her wheelchair, and was unable to make herself a cup of tea or to go to the bathroom. With treatment she could manage these tasks by herself.

Depending on the severity of the condition, a course of about 12 acupuncture treatments is needed to bring the symptoms of chronic conditions under control. In some cases, having a couple of treatments, or occasional treatments, may hold symptoms at bay or stabilise the condition. In the worst cases, it will be insufficient to bring them under control and a longer course will be required. This principle about a course of treatment is no different from, say, a course of anti–biotics prescribed by a western doctor; if the instructions say “Take one, three times daily”, that’s what you have to do to eliminate a bacterial infection. It’s no good taking them sporadically.

While acupuncture obviously cannot cure a chronic inflammatory condition, the treatment of this patient with acupuncture was definitely relieving and to some extent reversing her main symptoms, and improving her quality of life. Of course, the patient is still dependent on her family to take her to the clinic and I have no doubt she will be back for treatment in the coming years. But looking at her case history, I wonder what would have happened if she hadn’t come for that first, short course of treatment in April 2012? Would she have become bed-bound and emaciated within months? Happily, the last time I saw the lady she looked well, and had even brought her grand–daughter to the clinic to see the show.

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