In brief: Difficult knees get modest benefit from acupuncture

In brief

Difficult knees get modest benefit from acupuncture

Loss of joint cartilage through osteoarthritis is one of the major causes of disability and pain, especially in older people. It can be particularly debilitating when it affects the knee, one of the body's major weight-bearing joints. A study has found that acupuncture — the ancient Chinese practice of placing hair-thin needles at certain points on the body to treat medical conditions — can reduce pain and improve function in people with osteoarthritis of the knee. The findings don't mean that acupuncture is a substitute for proven conventional therapies. But they do suggest that the popular treatment can be an effective adjunctive, or complementary, therapy for people with osteoarthritic knees.

Researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Integrative Medicine conducted the 570-person study — the largest and best-designed trial of acupuncture to date. Women and men age 50 or over with osteoarthritis of the knee were assigned to one of three groups: true acupuncture, "sham" acupuncture, or arthritis education. People in both acupuncture groups received 23 treatments over a period of 26 weeks from licensed acupuncturists trained and supervised by the study's own expert.

In patients who received true acupuncture, the needles (which generally don't cause pain) were inserted at points recommended by traditional Chinese medicine for treating knee pain. Nine needles were used for each affected leg. The sham treatment consisted of fake needles that didn't pierce the skin but felt real to the participants. In both procedures, a screen was used to block the subjects' view of their legs. The arthritis education participants attended discussion groups and received materials based on a proven self-help method used by the Arthritis Foundation. Subjects in all three groups continued to use therapies prescribed by their doctors, including painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs.

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