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Can Acupuncture Benefit People With Thyroid Conditions?

More and more people are working with natural healthcare professionals.  And it’s becoming more common for people to see more than one natural healthcare professional.  For example, someone might see a chiropractor to receive spinal adjustments, get deep tissue massages from a licensed massage therapist on a regular basis, see a biological dentist for their oral health, etc.  And of course there is acupuncture.  Over the years I have had many people with thyroid and autoimmune thyroid conditions ask me if acupuncture can benefit their health, which is why I decided to write this blog post.

Before talking about whether or not acupuncture can help with thyroid and autoimmune thyroid conditions, let’s first discuss some of the basics of acupuncture.   As most people reading this know, acupuncture involves using fine needles which are inserted at specific locations of the body, which are known as acupuncture points (1) [1].  These points are linked together in a network of “meridians”, which run longitudinally along the surface of the body (1) [1].  There are 20 meridians, and 12 of these are referred to as “primary meridians”, and these relate to specific organs (2) [2].  There is also something called “Qi”, which is probably best described as an energy that flows through the meridians, and as described by Dr. Yin Lo in an article he wrote in Acupuncture Today, “Qi is what carries the effect of acupuncture from one acupoint to other parts of the body” (3) [3].

Acupuncture affects all of the systems of the body, including the immune system, gastrointestinal tract, and the endocrine system.  It helps to promote blood flow (4) [4], stimulates the release of neurotransmitters and endorphins which help to decrease pain (5) [5], helps to reduce stress (6) [6], and as I’ll mention later in this post, it can modulate the immune system.

What Are The Benefits of Receiving Acupuncture?

There are many different benefits of acupuncture.  And if you search through the literature you’ll see many studies which show that acupuncture can help people with a wide range of different health conditions.  Here are just a few conditions acupuncture might be able to help with:

Acute and chronic pain. There are many different studies which show that acupuncture can benefit people with chronic pain.  One systematic review compared the effectiveness of acupuncture with other treatment methods for alleviating pain due to osteoarthritis of the knee (7) [7].  This review involved 114 trials and 9,709 patients, and they concluded that acupuncture can be considered to be one of the more effective physical treatments for alleviating osteoarthritis knee pain in the short term.  However, the authors did admit that a lot of the evidence is still of poor quality, and therefore more research is probably needed in this area.  There is also is evidence that acupuncture can be more effective than medication for pain relief for both acute and chronic low back pain (8) [8] (9) [9].  Randomized controlled trials have shown that acupuncture has short-term effectiveness in the treatment of neck pain (10) [10].

Infertility and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Acupuncture can help with some cases of female infertility (11) [11] (12) [12]. With regards to PCOS, a literature review in 2010 showed that acupuncture may help people with PCOS by increasing blood flow to the ovaries, reducing ovarian volume and the number of ovarian cysts, increasing insulin sensitivity and reducing cortisol levels (13) [13].  A recent randomized controlled trial involving 32 women with PCOS showed that repeated acupuncture treatments resulted in higher ovulation frequency, and that ovarian and adrenal sex steroid serum levels were reduced with no effect on LH secretion (14) [14].

Asthma. One randomized controlled study showed that acupuncture performed in accordance with the principles of traditional Chinese Medicine showed significant immune-modulating effects and that asthma patients can benefit from acupuncture treatment (15) [15].  However, there are other studies which don’t show benefits of acupuncture in the management of certain cases of asthma (16) [16].

Cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. I came across one study involving 45 patients with cancer who had acupuncture administered one day prior to them receiving chemotherapy (17) [17].  The study showed that acupuncture can have positive effects in cancer treatment patients who experience nausea, vomiting, pain, insomnia, and anxiety as a side effect of chemotherapy.  And so while I’m not a big fan of chemotherapy, those who do receive this might want to consider getting one or more acupuncture treatments beforehand.

Migraines. There have been numerous studies showing that acupuncture can benefit some people with migraines, although there also have been studies which have shown that acupuncture doesn’t have a greater effect than sham acupuncture.  A randomized controlled trial involving 175 patients with migraines showed that verum acupuncture is more effective than sham acupuncture in reducing the discomfort of an acute migraine, as well as in preventing migraine relapse or aggravation (18) [18]. Another randomized controlled trial involving 480 patients with migraines showed that acupuncture had a clinically minor effect on migraine relief compared with sham acupuncture (19) [19].  A few other studies showed that acupuncture was no more effective than sham acupuncture in reducing migraine headaches (20) [20] (21) [21].

Acupuncture and Thyroid Health

There aren’t a lot of clinical trials involving acupuncture and thyroid health, although I did come across a few of them:

Acupuncture and Subclinical Hypothyroidism. One study looked at the influence of acupuncture on the quality of life in patients with subclinical hypothyroidism (22) [22].  The study involved 27 female patients who were found to have elevated TSH levels, along with normal levels of thyroid hormones.  Twenty of the 27 patients who underwent the treatment showed a significant decrease in the severity of clinical symptoms, and the TSH levels fell down to the physiological values.  The study concluded that acupuncture may be regarded as an alternative to substitution therapy of subclinical hypothyroidism.  Of course this is just a single study involving only 27 people, and without question more research needs to be done on this.  With that being said, the results still were encouraging, and it might be worth for some people with subclinical hypothyroidism to see an acupuncturist.  Plus, remember that most people with subclinical hypothyroidism have Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, and the improvement in these patients might suggest that receiving the acupuncture treatments modulated the immune system, which I’ll discuss shortly.

Acupuncture and Thyroid Eye Disease. One study compared the therapeutic effect and side effects on hyperthyroid exophthalmos with the combination of acupuncture and medication, and with medication only (23) [23].  It involved fifty two cases, and it showed that the improvement of thyroid eye disease was better in the acupuncture and medication group than in the medication group alone. Hyperthyroid exophthalmos is typically due to the TSH receptor antibodies attacking the tissues of the eye, and so this also suggests that acupuncture might modulate the immune system, in this case benefiting people with Graves’ Disease.

Acupuncture and benign thyroid nodules. This study involved 46 patients with thyroid adenoma who were treated by electrochemical treatment during acupuncture anesthesia (24) [24].  After three months to four years follow up the cure rate was 97.8%.  In addition to this being another small study, it was conducted in 1994, and so it would be nice to see larger, more current studies.

Acupuncture and autoimmunity. I did not come across any specific studies which showed that acupuncture can help with Graves’ disease or Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.  However, acupuncture can modulate the immune system (25) [25] (26) [26], and thus it potentially can benefit people with immunological conditions such as those with allergies, infections, immunodeficiency syndromes, and autoimmune conditions.

Of course the lack of clinical trials related to thyroid health doesn’t mean that acupuncture can’t be beneficial for those with thyroid and autoimmune thyroid conditions.  I’ve had numerous patients see an acupuncturist and report back a positive improvement in their condition.  One thing to keep in mind is that while acupuncture might benefit people with autoimmune thyroid conditions such as Graves’ Disease and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis by modulating the immune system, in most cases it won’t do anything to address the trigger.  For example, if someone has a leaky gut due to a gluten intolerance or an H. Pylori infection, receiving acupuncture probably isn’t going to heal the leaky gut, and most likely wouldn’t eradicate the H. Pylori infection (although by modulating the immune system it might improve the chances of eradicating H. Pylori when combined with other methods).  With that being said, acupuncture when used in combination with other natural treatment methods can potentially benefit those people with thyroid and autoimmune thyroid conditions.

In summary, acupuncture involves acupoints and meridians, which relate to specific organs.  Qi is an energy that flows through the meridians, and carries the effect of acupuncture from one acupoint to other parts of the body.  Acupuncture can help people with many different conditions, including those with acute and chronic pain, infertility, PCOS, asthma, patients receiving chemotherapy, migraines, and other conditions.  There are a few small studies which show that acupuncture can benefit thyroid health, probably by modulating the immune system in those people with Graves’ Disease and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.  And while acupuncture alone usually won’t restore someone’s health back to normal, many people with thyroid and autoimmune thyroid conditions can benefit from receiving acupuncture when combined with other natural treatment methods.