Can Acupuncture Improve My Osteoarthritis-Related Pain?

Acupuncture is a branch of traditional Chinese medicine. It is based on the premise that the healthy body circulates an energy known as qi or chi. This energy circulates between the vital organs along channels or meridians. Blockages in these meridians result in an imbalance of qi, which results in disease. The traditional acupuncturist seeks to find the source of the imbalance and correct it by applying needles to various points along the meridians, called acupoints. More modern acupuncturists may employ other modalities to “unblock” the meridians, such as electricity, heat, pressure, and even laser light.

Numerous studies have examined the use of acupuncture in patients with OA. Recently, scientists at the U.S. National Health Service (NHS), a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, reviewed all of the available studies on the use of acupuncture for the treatment of OA. These researchers noted that the results of these studies were often confounded by small patient populations, variations in acupuncture technique, and the difficulty associated with finding an adequate “placebo” or sham procedure with which to compare the acupuncture.

Nevertheless, they noted that most of these studies did not find a benefit for acupuncture when compared to sham acupuncture. They concluded that while the evidence is not sufficient to justify acupuncture as first-line treatment, it was probably sufficient to justify its use as a second- or third-line treatment. In addition, the authors suggested that the most appropriate candidate for acupuncture was a person who was not responding to conventional management, not tolerating medication, or experiencing recurrent pain.

Acupuncture is not without its downside. It is associated with some serious adverse events, including transmission of infectious disease, lung puncture (pneumothorax), other problems associated with organ punctures, spinal injuries, bleeding around the heart (cardiac tamponade), and broken needles left in the skin or other organs. Minor adverse events can include needles forgotten by the acupuncturist, worsening of pain and stiffness, minor bleeding, bruising, fatigue, sweating, severe nausea, fainting, and headache. The risk of adverse events tends to vary based on the practitioner's level of competence and training.