Each year, an estimated one million Americans undergo acupuncture, a form of traditional Chinese medicine that is over 2,000 years old. While it’s unclear how common acupuncture is among people with multiple sclerosis (MS), the National Multiple Sclerosis Society reports that it may be higher than in the general population.
Some people with MS incorporate bodywork services like acupuncture into their overall treatment plans. Acupuncture may be used as a complementary therapy alongside conventional drug treatments to minimize pain associated with MS and to improve quality of life.
Acupuncture is based on a concept in traditional Chinese medicine known as “qi” (pronounced “chee”), the flow of energy through a person’s body that determines their health. Qi is said to move in a smooth, balanced way through the body. Illness is thought to occur if this qi becomes blocked or unbalanced. According to traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is thought to work by helping to restore natural balance and trigger the body’s healing response.
Physically speaking, acupuncture involves stimulating specific locations on the skin, usually by inserting very thin needles into certain points on the body. Approximately four to 12 of the body’s 400 acupuncture points are stimulated during a single treatment session. Many Western practitioners believe that these points are places to stimulate the nerves, muscles, and connective tissues and to increase the body’s natural painkillers.
People undergoing acupuncture treatment typically have one or two sessions per week. The length of each session can vary, as can the length of the entire course of treatment, depending on a person’s symptoms and underlying disease. Longer courses of treatment may be necessary for people with multiple sclerosis and other chronic diseases, and it generally takes between six and 10 sessions to determine whether the treatment is helpful.
To date, there have been no large-scale controlled clinical studies evaluating the effectiveness and safety of acupuncture for people with MS, though some small studies have suggested possible benefits for pain, fatigue, mood, and quality of life. Experts caution that these studies are not very robust and their findings still need to be confirmed in larger studies to increase confidence in how acupuncture may improve MS symptoms.
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, two large surveys (one each in the United States and Canada) have been conducted involving acupuncture in people with MS. For both surveys, participants most frequently reported improvements in pain, spasticity, and feelings of numbness or tingling. Respondents also reported relief in symptoms including depression, anxiety, fatigue, and bowel or bladder function. Between 20 percent and 25 percent of all respondents reported trying acupuncture. Among those who did try acupuncture, 10 percent to 15 percent indicated plans to continue using it.
As the National MS Society notes, the results of surveys are not as convincing as those from clinical trials. However, they play a key role in generating ideas for further research on the effectiveness of acupuncture in managing MS symptoms.
Additionally, a 2017 study compared the effects of real acupuncture versus sham (fake) acupuncture on people with MS. For the study, researchers used the Expanded Disability Status Scale (EDSS), used by neurologists to quantify and monitor changes in overall disability and impairment in multiple sclerosis. Researchers in the study found that the EDSS scores of participants who received true acupuncture decreased at three and six months post-treatment. However, this positive change was not maintained at 12 or 24 months post-treatment. It’s also important to note that there is no evidence that acupuncture can slow the progression of disability in people with MS.
A 2017 study examined the effects of acupuncture in people with MS with walking difficulties, a symptom that impacts daily life for 85 percent of people with MS. According to the study, 95 percent of people who received acupuncture saw an improvement in walking, compared with 45 percent who received sham acupuncture.
One Canadian study on people with MS found that acupuncture may improve bladder urgency and incontinence. While the study was well-designed, it represented a small sample size with just 41 participants, and the effect participants experienced varied depending on the acupuncturist.
There are some considerable differences in how Western medicine and traditional Chinese medicine understand the body. Traditional Chinese medical theory, for instance, does not include the concept of a nervous system. The nervous system is vital to our understanding of multiple sclerosis, as the disease occurs when the immune system attacks the body’s central nervous system.
According to Western medicine, acupuncture may relieve pain by altering the body’s levels of pain-decreasing chemical messengers, known as opioids. One particular study used MRI to assess the effects of acupuncture on the brain. Imaging revealed that stimulating certain sites with acupuncture produced changes in brain activity, some of which occurred in areas of the brain that play a role in pain. These changes were observed while the individuals receiving acupuncture experienced the pain-relieving effects.
Other scientists have suggested that acupuncture may decrease stress or act as a placebo, improving a person’s symptoms because they strongly believe the treatment to be beneficial. Ultimately, as the National Multiple Sclerosis Society notes, multiple processes may play a role in acupuncture’s potential pain-relieving effects.
Many MyMSTeam members report trying acupuncture for MS symptom relief. As one member noted, acupuncture is not a cure, and it may not work for everyone with MS. However, they said they did experience some real benefits from the treatment. “I don’t want to endorse the benefits of acupuncture where none may exist (i.e., placebo effect). I will say, for now, that it does provide me with restful sleep, and I no longer have lower back pain.”
Some MyMSTeam members have found that acupuncture isn’t as effective as they’d hoped. One even found that acupuncture actually worsened their symptoms. “I visited my (beloved and trusted) acupuncturist after my diagnosis, and it only brought up more pain and spasms,” they wrote. “Same with massage! I guess my legs just don’t want to relax!”
Another member shared that the benefits they saw from acupuncture were only temporary. “I used to have acupuncture treatments. I had weekly sessions with him, and it felt great, and I felt so strong and confident in my walking,” they wrote. “But he told me it wouldn't last all day, and it didn’t. I kept going for about a year, and then he even said, ‘That’s about all I can do.’”
One MyMSTeam member may have summed it up best: “I guess, just like anything else, it helps with some and not with others.”
Acupuncture may provide relief to some people with MS, but it’s not for everyone. As always, talk to your health care provider before starting any new MS care regimens, including therapies derived from complementary and alternative medicine.
As the Multiple Sclerosis Trust and National MS Society both note, acupuncture is generally considered to be a safe, well-tolerated procedure for people with MS — especially when performed by an experienced, well-trained acupuncturist. Only 216 serious acupuncture complications have been reported in 20 years, and those that did occur were associated with poorly trained acupuncturists.
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, there are several rare risks associated with acupuncture, including:
Though the risks of undergoing acupuncture are limited, it’s recommended that you speak with your health care provider before trying any new treatments.
MyMSTeam is the social network for people with multiple sclerosis and their loved ones. Here, more than 165,000 members come together to ask and answer questions, offer support, and share stories about their daily lives with MS. Acupuncture is a frequently discussed topic on the platform.
Have you tried acupuncture or traditional Chinese medicine techniques with MS? Share your experiences with others in the comments below, or by creating a new post on MyMSTeam.