Acupuncture may protect people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) from stroke, new research suggests.

The study indicates that a course of acupuncture treatment may lower blood levels of inflammatory proteins called cytokines that are linked to heart disease, the No. 1 cause of death in people with RA.

“Inflammation is a consistent and independent predictor of cardiovascular disease in [rheumatoid arthritis],” researchers wrote in the Feb. 13 issue of BMJ Open. “Unstable blood pressure and lipid profiles are two risk factors for ischemic stroke, and acupuncture has the advantage of controlling both.”

Ischemic strokes are caused by a blood clot in the brain.

For this study, a team led by Dr. Hung-Rong Yen, of the School of Chinese Medicine at China Medical University in Taiwan, looked at a database of more than 23,000 RA patients in Taiwan. 

That included nearly 12,300 patients who were treated with acupuncture between 1997 and 2010. On average, patients began acupuncture treatment 2.9 years after getting their RA diagnosis.

The vast majority (87%) were treated with manual acupuncture. Three percent were treated with electroacupuncture, in which an electrode producing a low electrical pulse is attached to the needle, and 10% received both treatments.

Patients were monitored through 2011. 

Stroke risk rose with patients’ age and coexisting conditions. For instance, those who had high blood pressure had twice the risk as those with normal blood pressure, and patients with diabetes were 58% more likely to have a stroke.

But acupuncture still offered protection that was independent of sex, age, types of drugs used and coexisting conditions, researchers found.

Of those who had acupuncture, 341 had a stroke over the study period, compared to 605 patients in the other group. That translated into a 43% lower risk of stroke.

Researchers noted that the study cannot prove cause and effect, only that there is an association between acupuncture and stroke risk. They added that they lacked information on other factors that might influence risk — such as height, weight, lab tests or physical activity levels.

More information

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health has more about acupuncture.

SOURCE: BMJ, news release, Feb. 13, 2024