Acupuncture can relieve some of the symptoms of osteoarthritis and offers an alternative to traditional painkillers according to a new review of medical studies into the value of acupuncture in the treatment of the condition.

However the benefits of acupuncture for osteoarthritis are not as great as suggested by previous reviews, according to researchers at the University of Manitoba in Canada.

“The use of acupuncture is associated with significant reductions in pain intensity, improvement in functional mobility and quality of life,” concluded the authors of the new review. “While the differences are not as great as shown by other reviews, current evidence supports the use of acupuncture as an alternative for traditional analgesics in patients with osteoarthritis.”

Researchers set out to assess the comparative efficacy and safety of acupuncture to reduce pain intensity in adults diagnosed with osteoarthritis when compared to sham acupuncture – also known as fake acupuncture – usual care, or no treatment .

The scientists chose at random 12 previous trials which had studied the impact of acupuncture, sham acupuncture or usual care on patients’ symptoms. Nine of the trials were undertaken in physiotherapy outpatients departments, with the remaining three carried out in primary care centres.

The studies reviewed by the University of Manitoba researchers were included in the review regardless of the frequency of acupuncture treatment administered, the duration of each treatment, the number of needles administered, where the needles were located on the body and the depth to which they penetrated. Manual needle stimulation was performed by the therapist in 75% of the trials

In most of the trials reviewed acupuncturists achieved de chi – also known as de-qui. This is the sensation of tingling or numbness which can be felt at the site where the needle is inserted. The most commonly used acupuncture points were ST34, ST36, GB34, SP9 and Xiyan, all of which are in or close to the knee area.

“Reductions in pain were greater in trials with longer intervention periods,” commented the researchers. “Subgroup analyses suggest that acupuncture is most effective for reducing osteoarthritic pain when administered for more than four weeks.”

The researchers pointed out that although the review found acupuncture was associated with “statistically significant reductions in pain intensity and improvements in both functional ability and quality of life”, this was to a lesser degree than suggested in previous reviews in the areas of pain and function.

Osteoarthritis is a progressive degenerative disease characterised by gradual loss of joint cartilage which can result in pain and loss of movement. According to the University of Manitoba researchers approximately 10% of men and 18% of women aged over 60 have symptomatic osteoarthritis worldwide. There is no known cure for the condition.

Full details of the scientists’ findings are available at BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine

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