Just how well can acupuncture work to snuff out the pain of osteoarthritis of the knee? This common condition afflicts millions of Americans and can be quite disabling.
“I do recommend acupuncture, as alternative therapy for osteoarthritic knees in patients who either do not wish to have total joint replacement or who are poor candidates for that surgery because of their age (young or extremely old), or state of medical disability (cardiac or pulmonary disease, morbid obesity in a younger patient),” says Barbara Bergin, MD, board certified orthopedic surgeon at and co-founder of Texas Orthopedics, Sports & Rehabilitation Associates.
“I would not generally offer it to an older patient who had failed a traditional conservative course of treatment,” continues Dr. Bergin.
“But if they asked about other alternatives to surgery, I would not hesitate to recommend it.
“Anecdotally (40 years of orthopedic practice), I would not find it better than traditional medical forms of treatment – and, like traditional treatments, some patients get absolutely no relief from acupuncture.
“However, happily, there are no side effects to this treatment modality other than the expense.
“This is usually what keeps patients from using acupuncture.
“Most insurance companies do not pay for it, and most patients are either unwilling or unable to pay cash for their medical care.”
Are there any studies supporting acupuncture for knee pain relief from osteoarthritis?
The 2012 online Acupuncture in Medicine reports on a small study that supports acupuncture.
The study involved 90 patients (average age 71) with knee osteoarthritis — a condition of degeneration of the cartilage that provides cushioning and shock absorption to the knee joint.
When this cartilage is worn down enough, there is painful bone-on-bone contact.
The subjects in this study all had severe symptoms: inability to walk far; constant pain (including during the night), and were eligible for surgery.
They underwent acupuncture once a week for one month, and then after that, once every six weeks.
After one year, 41 of the patients were still receiving acupuncture, and after two years, 31 were. The average number of treatments was 16.5.
After only a month of treatment, patients experienced significant reduction in pain and stiffness, and marked improvement in functional capacity.
These improvements were ongoing throughout the two-year monitoring period.
However, you must also consider that the study was not large-scale. In addition, acupuncture is not a long-term solution for osteoarthritis.
This is because osteoarthritis is a progressive process: Over time, there will be less and less cartilage until there is complete bone-on-bone contact.
Acupuncture at this point will have little steam. But here’s something to consider:
Acupuncture can be a bridge to ultimately undergoing a knee replacement for patients who need more time to prepare for the surgery.
This would include patients with medical conditions that can increase the risk of serious post-operative complications, as well as interfere with recovery.
Obesity comes to mind here. The obese patient may benefit from acupuncture while losing weight to prepare for the surgery.
Another reason for using acupuncture is to have enough time to engage in “prehab,” which is getting the body as fit as possible to prepare for the trauma of major surgery.