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Osteoarthritis and Acupuncture

Effect of Acupuncture on Osteoarthritis

Acupuncture has shown inconsistent benefit as a treatment for osteoarthritis.72,102,108,109,148,154,169,171,179,191,192,200

Before discussing the research evidence on acupuncture for osteoarthritis, it is important to recognize that the way in which traditional "scientific" research is conducted may not really apply well to acupuncture. For example, most acupuncturists and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners (who also administer acupuncture) would argue that you cannot treat every person with the same disease with the same acupuncture points. So, someone with osteoarthritis that mostly affects their knees would receive a different acupuncture treatment than someone with osteoarthritis that mostly affects their hands. But for most scientific trials, acupuncture need be administered to all patients in the same manner so that the acupuncture treatment is administered in as objective of a manner as possible. Obviously however, this may not work well if every patient who has different manifestations of their osteoarthritis, is given the exact same treatment.

Read more details about Acupuncture.

Research Evidence on Acupuncture

Keeping the inadequacies of "scientific" studies in mind (as discussed above), a 2006 meta-analysis (systematic statistical review) of studies on acupuncture for osteoarthritis found 8 trials that were similar enough to be considered together.192 A total of 2,362 people were enrolled in these studies. The authors of the meta-analysis concluded that acupuncture should be regarded as an effective treatment for osteoarthritis.

However, as it happens, one study comprised almost half of all the people considered in this meta-analysis, and it failed to find real acupuncture more effective than sham acupuncture. In this study, published in 2006, 1,007 people with knee osteoarthritis were given either real acupuncture, fake acupuncture, or standard therapy over 6 weeks.169 Though both real acupuncture and fake acupuncture were more effective than no acupuncture, there was no significant difference in benefits between the two acupuncture groups. In general, larger studies are more reliable than small ones. For this reason, it is always somewhat questionable when meta-analysis combines one very large negative study and a number of smaller positive ones to come up with a positive outcome.

Another review, published in 2007, nuanced its conclusions differently.189 It concluded that real acupuncture produces distinct benefits in osteoarthritis as compared to no treatment, but that fake acupuncture is very effective for osteoarthritis too. When comparing real acupuncture to fake acupuncture, the difference in outcome—while it might possibly be statistically significant—is so trivial as to make no difference in real life. In other words, virtually all of the benefit of acupuncture for osteoarthritis is a placebo effect. A 2006 meta-analysis (systematic statistical review) of studies on acupuncture for osteoarthritis found 8 trials that were similar enough to be considered together.192 A total of 2,362 people were enrolled in these studies. The authors of the meta-analysis concluded that acupuncture should be regarded as an effective treatment for osteoarthritis.

Safety Issues

Serious adverse effects associated with the use of acupuncture are rare. 1,2 The most commonly reported problems include short-term pain from needle insertion, tiredness, and minor bleeding. There is one report of infection caused by acupuncture given to a person with diabetes. 3 Some acupuncture points lie over the lungs and insertion to excessive depth could conceivably cause a pneumothorax (punctured lung). Because acupuncturists are trained to avoid this complication, it is a rare occurrence.

A recent report from China contained an example of another complication caused by excessively deep needling. 4 A 44-year-old man was needled on the back of the neck at a commonly used acupuncture point just below the bony protuberance at the base of the skull. However, the acupuncturist inserted the needle too deeply and punctured a blood vessel in the skull. The client developed a severe headache with nausea and vomiting; a CAT scan showed bleeding in the brain, and a spinal tap found a small amount of blood in the cerebrospinal fluid. The severe headache, along with neck stiffness, continued for 28 days. The man was treated with standard pain medication, and the condition resolved itself without any permanent effects.

Infection due to the use of unclean needles has been reported in the past, but the modern practice of using disposable sterile needles appears to have eliminated this risk.

References

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