Acupuncture works to relieve arthritis pain: study

Combining acupuncture with drugs reduces pain, improves movement, placebo-control study finds.

Combining acupuncture with standard drug therapy can relieve pain and improve movement in people with arthritis of the knee, according to a new study.

"For the first time, a clinical trial with sufficient rigour, size, and duration has shown that acupuncture reduces the pain and functional impairment of osteoarthritis of the knee," said Dr. Stephen Straus in a release.

The results also suggest acupuncture can help improve quality of life for people with knee osteoarthritis, added Straus, a director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the U.S. government agency that funds medical research.

In the trial, Dr. Brian Berman of the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore and his colleagues studied 570 patients with an average age of 65 who had osteoarthritis of the knee.

Participants were randomly assigned to receive one of three treatments for 26 weeks, in addition to standard care such as anti-inflammatory medications and pain relievers:

  • Acupuncture – inserting thin needles into certain body points to stimulate improved health.
  • Sham acupuncture – patients feel some sensation from a needle but it isn't actually inserted.
  • A self-help course for managing pain.

By week eight, patients receiving true acupuncture began showing a significant increase in function and by week 14 a significant decrease in pain, compared to those in the other groups, Berman's team reported in the Dec. 21 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine

What sets the study apart from previous research is the extent of time the patients were followed, said Dr. Shawn Thistle, an acupuncture practitioner in Toronto.

The use of sham acupuncture also controlled for the placebo effect, in which patients expect relief with no real treatment.

Nevertheless, the study has its limitations. A sizeable number of patients dropped out over the 26 weeks, reducing the reliability of the results.

Also, the findings don't show acupuncture is better than other treatments or if it is more cost-effective than drugs.

Since acupuncture is generally safe, researchers say the treatment deserves further study, given the recent news about the dangerous side-effects of some arthritis medications.