Acupuncture for Osteoarthritis

What You Need to Know

Doctor examining patient's knee
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Acupuncture is among the oldest medical procedures in the world, originating in China more than 2000 years ago. Acupuncture first became well-known in the United States in the early 1970s.

Acupuncture is not a single procedure but instead refers to various techniques which involve the stimulation of anatomical points on the body. The acupuncture technique which has been most studied, and which most people know as acupuncture, involves penetrating the skin, with very thin, solid, metallic needles that are manipulated by hand or electrical stimulation.

Acupuncture Has Increased in Popularity in the United States

In a 2002 National Health Interview Survey, it was determined that 8.2 million adults in the United States had ever used acupuncture while 2.1 million had used acupuncture the previous year. Within the past two decades, the popularity of acupuncture has grown.

Acupuncture is Safe When Used By Licensed Practitioners

In 1996, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved acupuncture needles for use by licensed acupuncture practitioners. The FDA requires the use of sterile, nontoxic needles, labeled for single use only. In practice, a new set of disposable needles taken from a sealed package should be used for each patient. The treatment sites should be swabbed with alcohol or another disinfecting agent before needles are inserted through the skin. Proper technique minimizes complications.

The Effectiveness of Acupuncture Has Yielded Mixed Results

Acupuncture has been studied as a treatment for a variety of conditions and its effectiveness has not always been clear.

Studies have shown acupuncture to be effective for osteoarthritis of the knee.

Results from a NCCAM (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine) study were released in 2004, a 6-month clinical trial involving 570 study participants who had osteoarthritis of the knee. In this study 190 participants received acupuncture and 191 received "sham" acupuncture.

A third group of 189 participants attended an Arthritis Foundation educational program. All of the participants were allowed to continue with conventional osteoarthritis treatments.

The study participants:

  • were 50 years or older
  • had significant pain in their knee during the month before study onset
  • had never been treated with acupuncture
  • had not used steroids or other injections
  • had not had knee surgery during the 6 months before the study

By the 8th week of the NCCAM acupuncture study, the group receiving acupuncture had better function than either the sham or education group. By the 14th week, the acupuncture group also reported significantly less pain than the other groups. Overall, the participants receiving acupuncture had a 40 percent decrease in pain and 40 percent improvement in function compared to baseline evaluation.

The Theory Behind Acupuncture

In traditional Chinese medicine, disease occurs from an imbalance of yin (a passive principle) and yang (an active principle). The imbalance blocks vital energy along pathways of the body known as meridians. There are 12 main meridians, 8 secondary meridians, and 2000 acupuncture points connecting them on the body. As it applies to Western medicine, some think that acupuncture affects nervous system regulation and painkilling biochemicals.

Points to Remember

  • It is best to discuss acupuncture with your doctor to see if it's a treatment option for you.
  • If you have decided to try acupuncture, it is not necessary to stop other treatments.
  • Be sure that you are receiving acupuncture treatments from a licensed practitioner.

Get The Facts on Acupuncture. NCCAM. 8/7/2007.
Acupuncture Found To Be of Benefit in Knee Osteoarthritis. CAM at the NIH. Winter 2005.

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