Acupuncture, a form of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), may be beneficial for alleviating some symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS).
MS, a chronic condition that affects the brain and spinal cord, causes various symptoms, including problems with balance, bladder dysfunction, pain, and spasticity (stiffness).
While far from conclusive, some studies indicate acupuncture may be beneficial for reducing certain MS symptoms.
In this article, we’ll go over the potential benefits of acupuncture for MS and explain how the procedure works.
TCM and Western medicine are based on differing theories of wellness and disease.
In Western medical terms, it’s challenging to describe and understand exactly how acupuncture works. Still, many people with multiple sclerosis have found acupuncture beneficial and effective for relieving symptoms.
Acupuncture is a centuries-old practice that uses hair-thin needles or other instruments to stimulate specific acupuncture points on the skin.
Acupuncture points are along 14 meridians, or pathways, in the body. Acupuncture is said to restore balance, eliminate blockages, and support the flow of energy (qi) throughout the meridians.
It may do this by releasing chemicals, such as endorphins, that decrease the sensation of pain in the body.
A nearly discernable injury occurs when an acupuncture needle is inserted into the skin. While painless, this injury triggers an immune system response.
This may reduce pain and increase blood circulation to the needled area and throughout the treated meridian.
There are about 400 acupoints that may be stimulated along the body’s meridians. During a typical acupuncture session, 4 to 12 locations are needled.
Scalp acupuncture, a relatively new form of this practice, is sometimes used. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, it will take 6 to 10 sessions to determine whether treatment will be effective.
Sessions are usually scheduled to take place once or twice weekly. Your age, overall health, and symptoms will, in part, determine how long the effects of acupuncture last.
Before your session begins, the acupuncturist will ask about your medical history and symptoms. They may also look at your tongue to identify imbalances in the body.
This exam determines where the needles will be inserted. Once inserted, the needles remain in place for up to 20 to 40 minutes.
You may feel relaxed or energized after your session. Talk with the acupuncturist about activities you should or shouldn’t do after treatment. It may make sense to go slow and take it easy after a session. A calm walk or long nap may be the most appropriate activity for you.
Things to avoid include:
- vigorous activity
- placing ice packs on needled areas
- stimulants, including alcohol and caffeine
To date, there has not been a large, comprehensive study on acupuncture’s benefits for MS. But the following research studies do show benefits for symptom relief.
A 2022 review of 31 studies found acupuncture and scalp acupuncture beneficial for increasing the quality of life in people with MS. Study results indicated:
- improved bladder function
- reduction in spasms
- improved gait
- pain reduction in the limbs
- less fatigue
This review also noted that some studies showed:
- improved regulation of the neuroimmune system
- a reduction in relapses
- delays in disease progression
A 2017 study of 20 people with relapsing-remitting MS found that acupuncture was beneficial for:
- reducing spasticity
- improving balance
- reducing fatigue
- improving gait impairment
Talk with a doctor about how acupuncture might benefit you
In MS, the immune system is triggered to attack the brain and spinal cord, damaging myelin, the protective layer surrounding nerve fibers. Because acupuncture may stimulate the immune system, people with MS need to discuss the potential pros and cons of this practice with a doctor.
Acupuncture is generally considered safe, provided it is administered by a licensed acupuncturist who uses sterile, single-use needles. An inexperienced practitioner may do serious harm.
Acupuncture should not cause pain. You may feel tingling or a slight ache during treatment. If anything hurts, let your practitioner know right away.
Side effects may include:
- bleeding or bruising at acupoints
- feeling faint
Some health insurance plans cover acupuncture, but many don’t provide coverage.
If you have coverage for acupuncture, you might have a cap on the number of sessions your plan will pay for annually. Check with your insurer to see whether acupuncture is a covered benefit and, if so, what you can expect your copay to be per session.
You may pay about $100 per session if you don’t have insurance. Your geographic area may affect the cost.
If your insurance plan covers acupuncture, ask for a list of practitioners in your area.
You can also reach out to people you know who have seen acupuncturists for recommendations.
Also, you can find licensed acupuncturists through the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture or the National Council and Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Both organizations allow you to search for an acupuncturist by state.
Some studies have shown acupuncture to be beneficial for MS symptom relief. MS symptoms that may improve with acupuncture include:
- bladder function
- muscle spasms
Acupuncture is generally considered safe. But talk with a doctor to see whether it could improve your condition.
Also, be sure to always work with a licensed, experienced acupuncturist.