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Acupuncture Offers Short-term Osteoarthritis Relief

July 8, 2005

But some experts aren’t ready to accept it as a recommended treatment

Acupuncture can offer short-term pain relief and improved joint functioning for people with osteoarthritis of the knee, a new study finds.

To date, there is only limited scientific evidence that acupuncture actually works. But many osteoarthritis sufferers are turning to the ancient Chinese treatment as an alternative to pain medications, some of which have recently been linked to increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Some of the most powerful of these drugs, such as Vioxx, have been pulled from the market because of their potential danger.

In this new study, researchers tested the effects of acupuncture on nearly 300 patients with osteoarthritis of the knee, the joint most often affected by the disease.

“Acupuncture treatment had significant and clinically relevant short-term effects,” said lead researcher Dr. Claudia Witt, deputy administrative director of the Institute of Social Medicine, Epidemiology, and Health Economics at the Charite University Medical Center in Berlin, Germany.

The findings appear in the July 9 issue of The Lancet.

For the study, 294 patients with chronic osteoarthritis of the knee were randomly selected to receive either acupuncture or simulated acupuncture, while another group was put on a waiting list. This latter group was used as a “control” group so the researchers could accurately measure the effect of the therapy.

Patients were given acupuncture in 12 sessions over eight weeks. Witt’s group followed the patients for one year after treatment. “Patients with osteoarthritis of the knee who received acupuncture had significantly less pain and better function after eight weeks than patients who received minimal acupuncture or no acupuncture,” Witt said.

“However, after 26 and 52 weeks, exploratory analysis indicated that the differences between acupuncture and minimal acupuncture were no longer significant,” she added.

Based on these findings, Witt believes that acupuncture could be an effective alternative to other treatments for osteoarthritis. “Patients who suffer from chronic pain due to osteoarthritis of the knee could try acupuncture treatment to reduce pain and stiffness and improve physical function,” she advised.

One expert isn’t surprised that the effect of acupuncture doesn’t last.

“To expect the effect to last for 26 or 52 weeks is unreasonable,” said Dr. Daniel E. Furst, the Carl M. Pearson professor of medicine and director of the Rheumatology Clinical Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It blows my little mind that they expected it to last for 52 weeks.”

Furst believes that continued acupuncture is probably needed to maintain the positive results the researchers initially found. “It appears to me that there is a place for treating the pain of osteoarthritis of the knee with acupuncture,” he said.

But he also thinks other studies are needed to corroborate these findings before the benefit of acupuncture can be proven. “I’d like to see the result repeated,” Furst said. “As it is, I am a moderately happy camper. I am moderately optimistic that it might be true.”

Other experts remain more skeptical of acupuncture’s benefits, however.

“We are still some way short of having conclusive evidence that acupuncture is beneficial in arthritis or in any other condition, other than in a statistical or artificial way,” Drs. Andrew Moore and Henry McQuay from Pain Research, at the University of Oxford, England, wrote in an accompanying editorial in the journal. “There is limited evidence of effect and, with exceptions, of cost-effectiveness. Most importantly, the need for needles is still in doubt,” they concluded.

More information

The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases can tell you more about osteoarthritis (www.niams.nih.gov ).




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