Osteoarthritis and the rheumatic pains that result from this type of joint damage, are quite a common problem. People frequently complain that their arthritic knee pain is worse in cold or damp weather and this demonstrates quite clearly the origin of the concept of pathogens in traditional Chinese medicine. The pathogen in osteoarthritis is almost always cold or damp and therefore these pains should be treated by the use of localized heat.

A great deal of research work has been done to investigate the effects of acupuncture on the pain caused by osteoarthritis. Some of this work is excellent but, for a variety of technical reasons, some is poor. Clinical trials have been completed on knee, hip, elbow, neck and lower back pain, and the information from these trials shows that significant pain relief can be achieved in about 70 per cent of those who receive acupuncture. Some work suggests that only 50 per cent of people benefit from acupuncture while other trials show 95 per cent of the patients benefiting.

The effect of acupuncture in osteoarthritis pain does not last for ever, the available research showing that its effects gradually diminish after about six to nine months. Some people may have significant pain relief for up to two years, but the majority of people who gain relief from acupuncture will require further treatment after about six months. Treatment is usually just as effective on the second or third occasion as it was initially.

Osteoarthritis is a condition that naturally causes intermittent pain and discomfort. Patients may find that their osteoarthritis knee is relatively painless for nine months and then goes through a painful period for a further six months. For this reason the effects of any treatment must be compared to the natural history of the disease process and this can cause difficulty in interpreting the results of individual treatments. Acupuncture also has a ‘magical quality’ that pills do not have, so it is difficult to sort out the effects of the ‘magic’ as compared to the real effects of acupuncture. In spite of these problems, acupuncture is a safe and effective form of treatment for osteoarthritis.

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Written by George T. Lewith MA MRCGP MRCP

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