Proof that acupuncture works – up to a point
By Nic Fleming, Health Correspondent
Last Updated: 12:55am GMT 21/12/2004
Acupuncture significantly reduces pain and improves function in those suffering osteoarthritis of the knee, according to research published yesterday.
Patients who underwent the ancient Chinese needle treatment reported a 44 per cent average reduction in pain and a 40 per cent improvement in mobility.
‘We have demonstrated that Chinese acupuncture is an effective complement to arthritis treatment’
While acupuncture has been gaining mainstream acceptance, particularly for pain relief, over the last decade the latest study is one of the largest and longest to show such conclusive effects.
Brian Berman, of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore, said: "We have demonstrated that traditional Chinese acupuncture is an effective complement to conventional arthritis treatment and can be successfully employed as part of a multi-disciplinary approach to treating the symptoms of osteoarthritis." Acupuncture, which is at least 2,000 years old, is based on the idea that energy flows along channels called meridians in the body.
Practitioners say they block or stimulate these channels by inserting thin needles at precise points. Some have suggested the ancient treatment works by influencing the body's electromagnetic fields.
In Prof Berman's study, a group of 570 patients aged 50 or older suffering from osteoarthritis of the knee was split into 190 who received acupuncture, 191 who received a sham treatment simulating acupuncture and 189 who attended self-help lessons.
The volunteers were assessed at four, eight, 14 and 16 weeks. After eight weeks, participants receiving acupuncture were showing an improvement in mobility and by 14 weeks a significant decrease in pain.
They continued to receive standard medical care including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and pain relievers. By the end of the trials, the reported reduction in pain among those who had acupuncture was 44 per cent, 28 per cent for those who had sham treatment, and around 19 per cent for the self-help group.
The improvements in mobility were 40 per cent for those who had acupuncture, 33 per cent for the control group, and 20 per cent for the self-helpers.
Previous research into the effectiveness of acupuncture has been criticised because of the difficulty of faking needle insertion and therefore providing a general control group.
The research, published in the American journal the Annals of Internal Medicine, was funded by two groups who are part of the National Institutes of Health in the United States.
Dr Stephen Straus, the director of the National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, said: "For the first time, a clinical trial with sufficient rigour, size and duration has shown that acupuncture reduces the pain and functional impairment of osteoarthritis of the knee."
Dr Stephen Katz, the director of National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, said: "This disease is one of the most frequent causes of physical disability among adults."
Three in 10 adults in Britain suffer some form of arthritis or joint pain, and two million patients visited their GPs complaining of osteoarthritis this year.
A separate British study, also published in the Annals of Internal Medicine yesterday, indicated that needle treatment appeared to help reduce neck pain.
George Lewith, a senior research fellow at the University of Southampton, found that in a group of 124 patients aged 18 to 80 those given acupuncture over 12 weeks reported a 72 per cent drop in neck pain, while those given sham treatment reported a 60 per cent reduction.
Dr Lewith said: "Our study implies that most of the improvement gained from acupuncture was not due to the needling process itself but due predominantly to the non-specific yet powerful effects which are probably part of the treatment process.
"Acupuncture is safe and effective in reducing pain. It also reduces the intake of pain-killers – important in diminishing unwanted side-effects."