There was lots of chatter this past week about a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association about acupuncture not working for chronic knee pain. I find the noise about it and the report itself very interesting for a couple of reasons.
The short version on the story is this: In a study of 282 adults age 50 and older with chronic knee pain from osteoarthritis were randomly assigned to needle or laser acupuncture treatments or a sham laser acupuncture treatment. After 12 weeks, participants who had the acupuncture treatments reported modest improvements in pain. Nine months later, the participants reported that their pain had returned, leading the researchers to conclude that acupuncture doesn’t offer relief from chronic knee pain caused by osteoarthritis.
I found all the attention about this study interesting first, because it was about acupuncture not working for a pain condition. Why is this big news? Is it because much of the research we see about acupuncture is positive? In fact, a 2013 meta analysis (a study of research studies already done) involving 9,700 patients concluded that acupuncture can be considered as one of the more effective physical treatments for alleviating osteoarthritis knee pain in the short-term helpful in relieving pain associated with osteoarthritis.’
Secondly, short of replacing the knee what practitioner believes that they can make a patient with bone-on-bone degeneration permanently pain free? This is a condition in which the cartilage in the knee has degenerated and bone spurs have caused permanent structural changes within the knee that can be only be “fixed” by replacing the joint.
I understand the limitations of my treatments, as do most acupuncture practitioners. However, this study could be compared to giving patients pain relief medications for three months only and checking back in nine months to see how they’re doing. How would you guess they’re doing?
I don’t find this study a great “aha” moment in the world of acupuncture, as many news outlets seemed to do. I also don’t see that these findings negate the effects of acupuncture for the several patients I see who have knee (and hip) osteoarthritis who need a little pain relief to get them through until they’re willing, ready, and have the time to replace the joint. These patients wouldn’t come back if the acupuncture didn’t work. It just won’t work nine months from now any more than that ibuprofen you took today will.