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Sticking It to Arthritis Pain

A landmark study by the National Institutes of Health confirmed that acupuncture provides pain relief and improves function for people with osteoarthritis of the knee. They concluded that the modality serves as an effective complement to standard care.

The study—the longest and largest randomized, controlled phase III clinical trial of acupuncture ever conducted— was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), both components of the National Institutes of Health.

The multi-site study team, including rheumatologists and licensed acupuncturists, enrolled 570 patients, aged 50 or older with osteoarthritis of the knee. Participants had significant pain in their knee the month before joining the study, but had never experienced acupuncture, had not had knee surgery in the previous 6 months, and had not used steroid or similar injections. Participants were randomly assigned to receive one of three treatments: acupuncture, sham (fake) acupuncture, or participation in a control group that followed the Arthritis Foundation’s self-help course for managing their condition. Patients continued to receive standard medical care from their primary physicians, including anti-inflammatory medications, such as COX-2 selective inhibitors, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and opioid pain relievers.

“For the first time, a clinical trial with sufficient rigor, size, and duration has shown that acupuncture reduces the pain and functional impairment of osteoarthritis of the knee,” said Stephen E. Straus, M.D., NCCAM Director. “These results also indicate that acupuncture can serve as an effective addition to a standard regimen of care and improve quality of life for knee osteoarthritis sufferers. NCCAM has been building a portfolio of basic and clinical research that is now revealing the power and promise of applying stringent research methods to ancient practices like acupuncture.”

During the course of the study, led by Brian M. Berman, M.D., Director of the Center for Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland, 190 patients received true acupuncture and 191 patients received sham acupuncture for 24 treatment sessions over 26 weeks. Sham acupuncture is a procedure designed to prevent patients from being able to detect if needles are actually inserted at treatment points. In the education control group, 189 participants attended six, 2-hour group sessions over 12 weeks based on the Arthritis Foundation’s Arthritis Self-Help Course, a proven, effective model.

On joining the study, patients’ pain and knee function were assessed using standard arthritis research survey instruments and measurement tools. Patients’ progress was assessed at 4, 8, 14, and 26 weeks. By week 8, participants receiving acupuncture were showing a significant increase in function and by week 14 a significant decrease in pain, compared with the sham and control groups. These results held through week 26.

Overall, those who received acupuncture had a 40% decrease in pain and a nearly 40% improvement in function compared to baseline assessments.

Dr. Berman concludes, “This trial, which builds upon our previous NCCAM-funded research, establishes that acupuncture is an effective complement to conventional arthritis treatment and can be successfully employed as part of a multidisciplinary approach to treating the symptoms of osteoarthritis.”

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