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How to Treat Ankylosing Spondylitis With Acupuncture and TCM

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By Qineng Tan, L.Ac., Ph.D. and Xiaomei Cai, L.Ac., Ph.D.

 

Ankylosing spondylitis low back pain
Low back pain can be an early sign of Ankylosing Spondylitis.

Low back pain, morning stiffness, hip pain? Fatigue, losing weight, poor vision, skin rashes? These can all be signs of Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS). Ankylosing Spondylitis is a type of autoimmune arthritis. Acupuncture can help relieve Ankylosing Spondylitis symptoms like lower back pain.

Ankylosing spondylitis is a chronic inflammatory arthritis condition that most often affects the spine, usually the lower back and pelvis is an inflammatory disease; the primary symptom is inflammation in the sacroiliac joints, the joints where  the base of the  spine (the ilium) meets the pelvis (the sacrum).

Similar to rheumatoid arthritis (RA), ankylosing spondylitis is an arthritic condition triggered by a person’s immune system mistakenly attacking healthy tissues. Arthritis generally refers to pain and swelling in joint tissues.

Ankylosing spondylitis can also affect the hips, knees, shoulder joints, and/or the ribcage. When the body tries to heal affected bones, extra bone tissue begins to grow. This new bone growth is what causes joint stiffness and lack of flexibility. When the ribs are affected, it can restrict normal breathing.

Ankylosing spondylitis can, over time, weaken bones to the extent that they begin to collapse; these compression fractures can ultimately lead to curvature of the spine and a stooped posture. These fractures of the vertebrae can potentially affect the spinal cord and nerves. 

“Ankylosis” is a term for the stiffening and fusion of bones. A “fused spine” can be the eventual outcome of Ankylosing spondylitis. 

AS can also cause inflammation in the GI tract, causing gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea. In this sense, it is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). 

In some cases, ankylosing spondylitis can cause eye inflammation, leading to vision problems like blurred vision, sensitivity to light, and painful eyes.

AS can also cause inflammation in the heart, which affects the function of the aortic valve and increases risk of heart disease.

As with other autoimmune disorders, modern medicine research has yet to discover what causes Ankylosing Spondylitis. Some gene mutations have been linked to ankylosing spondylitis, which is sometimes called axial spondyloarthritis. 

Medical treatment for ankylosing spondylitis helps manage symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.

Acupuncture is widely recognized as an effective adjunct treatment for ankylosing spondylitis that can help reduce pain and improve mobility.

 

Top 10 Ankylosing Spondylitis Symptoms

Ankylosing spondylitis hip pain
Ankylosing spondylitis can cause hip pain, rib pain, and/or neck pain.

The initial onset of symptoms of ankylosing spondylitis often includes episodes of lower back pain and stiffness or hip pain, which then may get more severe over time. But symptoms can vary widely from person to person, depending on which parts of the body are affected.

Symptoms of Ankylosing Spondylitis include:

 

  1. Persistent lower back pain and stiffness, typically worse in the morning and after periods of inactivity; back pain that improves with movement and exercise
  2. Pain and stiffness that radiate from the lower back to the buttocks, hips, and thighs, reduced flexibility and range of motion in the spine
  3. Hip pain, shoulder pain, chest pain, rib pain, knee pain, and/or ankle pain
  4. Difficulty taking deep breaths due to stiffness in the chest and ribcage
  5. Fatigue
  6. Bony fusion of vertebrae, leading to a stooped posture and loss of spinal mobility
  7. Eye inflammation (uveitis) causes eye pain, sensitivity to light, and blurred vision
  8. Loss of appetite, weight loss
  9. Psoriasis, skin rash
  10. Abdominal pain, diarrhea

There is usually a gradual progression of AS symptoms over time, potentially leading to severe spinal deformity and disability.

Conventional treatment, with acupuncture and TCM used as a complementary treatment, can be helpful for symptomatic relief.

 

Ankylosing Spondylitis Treatment 

While there is no cure for AS, conventional medical treatments aim to manage symptoms, prevent complications, and improve quality of life for individuals with the condition.

NSAIDs such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and celecoxib are commonly used to reduce pain and inflammation associated with AS. They can help relieve symptoms and improve mobility, particularly during flare-ups.

Disease-Modifying Antirheumatic Drugs (DMARDs) like sulfasalazine and methotrexate may be prescribed to slow the progression of AS and reduce inflammation. These medications work by suppressing the immune system’s abnormal response, which contributes to inflammation, the formation of extra bone tissue, and damage to the joints.

Biologic drugs, such as tumor necrosis factor (TNF) inhibitors like adalimumab, etanercept, and infliximab, target specific components of the immune system involved in inflammation. They are often prescribed for individuals with moderate to severe AS who do not respond adequately to NSAIDs or DMARDs.

Physical therapy can play a crucial role in the management of AS by helping to improve flexibility, posture, and range of motion. Exercise programs tailored to the individual’s needs can help strengthen muscles, reduce pain, and maintain spinal mobility.

Orthopedic interventions, such as braces and orthotics, may be recommended to support proper posture and prevent spinal deformities caused by AS. In severe cases, surgical procedures like spinal fusion may be considered to stabilize the spine and alleviate pain.

Individuals with AS require regular monitoring by healthcare providers to assess disease activity, monitor medication effectiveness, and detect any complications early. Adjustments to treatment plans may be necessary based on disease progression and individual response to therapy.

 

Can Acupuncture Help Ankylosing Spondylitis?

Cupping treatment
Cupping can help move Qi that is blocked.

Acupuncture and moxibustion have been used for centuries to help relieve joint pain and stiffness due to inflammation. In Chinese, conditions that might involve bone fusion are called “zhu jie yang,” which means “bamboo spine.” 

According to TCM theory, the bones are nourished by the kidney system; we observe that the formation of AS symptoms occurs along the Kidney Meridian and the Governing Vessel meridian. Weakness in bones may be due to deficiency of kidney Qi and blockage of the Governing Vessel.

Painful areas arise when there are blockages in Qi. Blockages occur due to pathogenic forces of phlegm accumulation, cold, and dampness.

Acupuncture treatment, herbs, and moxibustion may be used to strengthen the kidneys, address kidney yang deficiency, and clear dampness and wind from the channels. 

One study found that patients who were diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis and kidney yang deficiency and were given acupuncture treatment and moxibustion focused on the Governing Vessel meridian experienced significant reduction of pain.

Moxibustion warms and invigorates yang energy and can help improve immune function. In the case of AS, this treatment protocol can help slow the progression of the disease, preventing inappropriate bone formation and reducing inflammatory responses.

A review of 26 studies that involved moxibustion treatment as an adjunct therapy for ankylosing spondylitis. The conclusion was that patients who had moxibustion in addition to conventional treatment fared better than those who did not receive moxibustion.

The British Acupuncture Council recommends TCM treatment for AS, as it has been shown to be effective at relieving back pain, without side effects.

One study of patients with ankylosing spondylitis who received acupuncture treatment and Chinese herb supplements, including herbal soak baths, found that people experienced pain relief and functional improvement.

A study that looked at 22 patients who received cupping therapy along with acupuncture and infrared heat lamps. The vast majority of the patients reported significant improvement in their pain symptoms.

Tuina therapeutic massage may also be helpful for helping to improve mobility and circulation.


A review of studies showed that acupuncture offers “unique advantages” in the treatment of ankylosing spondylitis, including localized pain relief, reduced inflammation, improvement of joint mobility, prevention of spinal deformity, and overall better quality of life.

Acupuncture Near Me for Ankylosing Spondylitis in West Los Angeles

Acupuncture can be an effective complementary treatment for many autoimmune disorders, including Sjogren’s disease, Lupus, as well as difficult-to-treat chronic pain conditions like fibromyalgia and complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS). Dr. Tan and Dr. Cai at Art of Wellness in West L.A. have over 35 years of experience helping patients find relief from all kinds of musculoskeletal pain. 




*This article is for education from the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine only. The education provided by this article is not approved by FDA to diagnose, prevent, treat and cure human diseases. It should not stop you from consulting with your physician for your medical conditions. Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on Qi, which is an invisible force that usually cannot be observed by modern science. Because science focuses on testing ideas about the natural world with evidence obtained through observation, these aspects of acupuncture can’t be studied by science. Therefore acupuncture and Chinese herbs are often not supported by double-blind, randomized trials, and they are considered alternative medicine therapies in the United States.


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