Acupuncture is a complementary therapy sometimes used by people with multiple sclerosis.
Acupuncture is an element of traditional Chinese medicine. This says that health depends on the body's life force or energy flow (qi - pronounced chee). Qi moves in a smooth and balanced way through the body along paths called meridians. If qi becomes unbalanced or blocked, illness may result. Using fine needles at key points on the body, the acupuncturist can trigger the body's own healing response and help restore natural balance.
An American survey of 1,000 people with MS found that about one in five had used acupuncture, mostly for pain or anxiety. About half also said that fatigue, depression, spasticity and sleep problems improved. Despite a large amount of anecdotal support for acupuncture for MS symptoms, there has been limited research into the area. Those studies which have been reported have tended to be small - including single case studies, they often lack controls, the descriptions of the treatment protocols used have been inconsistent and there has been a lack of statistical analysis of the results. The following are the findings of some of the studies which have been carried out.
A review looked at research into acupuncture for a range of conditions other than MS. This found some evidence that it could help with some, but not all, types of pain.
A 2014 review of 12 studies in MS concluded that although many of the studies included suggested that acupuncture was successful in improving MS symptoms - including quality of life, fatigue, spasticity and pain, the poor study designs made it difficult to draw any firm conclusions about the true effectiveness of acupuncture.
A 2017 study looking at the effects of acupuncture in people with MS with walking difficulties compared true acupuncture with sham acupuncture. Of those who received true acupuncture 95% saw an improvement in walking as measured by the timed 25-foot walk test, compared with 45% in the sham treatment group.
Another 2017 study in China, again comparing true acupuncture to sham acupuncture, showed a positive effect in people with MS who received true acupuncture with reduced EDSS scores seen at 3 and 6-months post-treatment. However, this effect wasn't maintained at 12 or 24 months.
A 2018 review of acupuncture for spasticity in a number of conditions including MS, concluded that there wasn't enough evidence that acupuncture (including electroacupuncture) could reduce spasticity in MS.
There is a need for better designed studies with larger numbers of people involved, which include control groups, clearer descriptions of the treatment protocols used and better analysis of the results to get a clearer picture of whether there are benefits to using acupuncture for MS.
Despite there not being enough evidence to make claims for or against the use of acupuncture in MS, it is generally considered safe when provided by an experienced, trained practitioner using sterile single-use needles. There are several organisations that maintain professional standards for acupuncture in the UK. Each website allows you to search for practitioners.
- International Journal of MS Care 2002;4(2):95. Efficacy, safety, and prevalence of acupuncture use among a group of people with MS: a web-based survey.
- Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine 2011;17 (3):187-189. Summary Acupuncture for pain: an overview of Cochrane reviews.
- Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2014;2014:972935. Full article Acupuncture and multiple sclerosis: a review of the evidence.
- Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry 2013;84(11);Abstract 177. Full article Acupuncture is an effective treatment for pain and other MS symptoms.
- Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 2017;23(11):852-857. Summary Effects of acupuncture on gait of patients with multiple sclerosis.
- Chinese Acupuncture and Moxibustion 2017;37(6):576-580. Summary Relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis at remission stage treated with acupuncture: a randomized controlled trial. [Article in Chinese]
- Annals of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine 2018; Nov 5 [Epub ahead of print] Summary Does acupuncture help patients with spasticity? A narrative review.
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Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) refers to treatments that are not widely in use in conventional medicine, such as acupuncture and yoga.
Complementary medicine: a nurses view
MS nurse Vicki Gutteridge looks at the use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAMS) in managing multiple sclerosis