August 23, 2017
The Power of a Little Needle- Review of the Efficacy of Acupuncture for Joint Pain

Acupuncture famously claims to have miraculous powers, and many people swear by it.  Reportedly, it may be effective for everything from migraines to sciatica.  But what does the scientific evidence say? 

 A bit of the background

Acupuncture has been practiced for thousands of years in China.  Practitioners carefully place tiny needles- often no thicker than a strand of hair- at specific points in the body.  It is believed that by doing this, the body’s energy or “qi” is balanced and flowing correctly.  Illness or pain occurs when the qi is “blocked” or unbalanced.

Really?

Western medicine notes that there are positive effects.  When placed in the correct spot, a needle can send a signal up to the spinal cord and to the brain.  This, in turn, can stimulate the body’s release of endorphins and other pain-relieving chemicals.  Even hormones and neurotransmitters can be released which together gives positive effects in the body [2].

The scientific literature

Several researchers have inspected the academic literature from the last few years and have published reviews of their findings.  Let’s take a look at their analyses.

Long term effects
The first study collected the evidence from 29 trials with a total of 17,822 patients with chronic joint pain [1].  The authors set out to see if the positive effects of acupuncture were lasting or only short term.  Surprisingly, they found out that  90% of the positive benefits were still in effect after 12 months!  This is good news for folks who need lasting pain relief. 
The authors also point out that this is good financially as well.  While acupuncture is not always covered by insurance, for the cost out of pocket, you can get long-lasting relief.
All about knees
Another recent paper reviewed the results of 10 published studies on the effects of acupuncture [2].  These 10 specifically dealt with the pain and poor function due to knee osteoarthritis. 
They found that persons who received acupuncture had significantly more pain relief and reported better physical function.  And again, the researchers found that these benefits were still present long after the course of treatment.

Acupuncture Picture for Knee Pain

 Other options

Acupuncture traditionally is simply the needles placed at certain points.  However, there are other options now available.  Electro-acupuncture, where the needles also transmit a very mild electrical current, has shown to have benefits for knee pain due to osteoarthritis.  There are also practitioners who insert needles which have been dipped in bee venom or even placental extract.  These alternative forms of acupuncture have not been thoroughly studied, but may be interesting for people who have tried everything.

It doesn’t work for everyone, but you may be one of the folks who find relief.  With no side effects, acupuncture is a safe treatment and maybe worth a try especially when combining it with a targeted physical activity and tools for swelling reduction.

 

[1] https://insights.ovid.com/crossref?an=00006396-201705000-00005

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27655986

 

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