Acupuncture, already used to treat lower back and other types of pain, may be worth investigating to relieve knee and neck pain, according to two recent studies.
The First Study: Knee Arthritis
In one study, University of Maryland researchers randomly assigned 570 patients who had painful knee arthritis to receive either 23 sessions of acupuncture; 23 sessions of a sham procedure in which needles were inserted into the skin but not at true acupuncture points; or six two-hour sessions to educate themselves on arthritis management.
After 26 weeks, people getting the real acupuncture treatments experienced greater improvements in both pain and function than patients in the sham or education groups.
"This echoes the results of studies we have been doing for 11 years now," says study author Dr. Brian M. Berman, director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
"The effect is not huge, but none of the things we do with osteoarthritis patients have a huge effect."
The Second Study: Neck Pain
In the second study, 135 patients who had neck pain received either acupuncture treatments for one month or mock electrical stimulation of acupuncture points. They were then tracked for one year.
Dr. George Lewith, study author and senior research fellow at the University of Southampton in England, says both groups reported pain relief, but the acupuncture group reported a 12% improvement above the other group.
"Acupuncture is safe and effective for neck pain, so it's worth trying," says Lewith.
"We need to do more big studies, but above all else we need to understand why such a sate treatment is so effective in the long term," he says.
These results are not surprising to Dr. Donald W. Novey, medical director of the Center for Complementary Medicine at the Advocate Medical Group at Lutheran General Hospital, in Park Ridge, Illinois.
"We use acupuncture for neck pain, and there is a variation in response," he says. "Some people respond wonderfully; some not at all."
In general, the older the patient and the longer the pain has persisted, the less effective the acupuncture.
The same is true for using acupuncture to treat knee arthritis, he says. "It does not help every patient."
Novey says he encourages patients to always consider simpler and more economical measures first" to reduce pain.
In the case of arthritis of the knee, for example, that means losing excess weight to reduce pressure on the knees, he advises.