The Role of Acupuncture in Joint Replacement

Dan* called Acupuncture in the Park out of the blue a couple of months ago. I had seen Dan for low back and hip pain a couple of years ago, but now his hip was really bothering him and he wanted to know if I could help. Apparently he had been limping along with really intense hip pain for the past 18 months. He had gone the conservative route; along with acupuncture, he had tried physical therapy, massage, and chiropractic. He finally landed in the orthopedist’s office, had seen the X-rays, and had resigned himself to having the hip replaced.

Acupuncture for pain relief after knee or hip replacement surgeryDan’s issue was that he had a couple of major projects at work that he needed to complete, and could not schedule the surgery until about four months from now. His question? The pain was considerable and getting worse; could acupuncture keep him functional until his surgery? While there are no guarantees, I told Dan that acupuncture can be fairly effective for pain, and that it would be reasonable to give it a try.

I saw Dan every week or two until his surgery. I performed acupuncture combined with electrical stimulation, and added heat therapy to the mix. We kept him comfortable, functional, and on some days, even pain-free. Like many patients, Dan would say that there is a role for acupuncture in supporting people who are undergoing hip or knee joint replacement. Clearly acupuncture cannot reverse joint damage from arthritis or replace cartilage. However, there are a couple of ways that acupuncture can help someone who already has or will soon be undergoing this kind of surgery:

Pain relief. Like Dan, many people see the writing on the wall. They know that they will need their joint replaced; they’re just not ready yet. Acupuncture treatments can be an effective and drug-free way to reduce the pain until replacement surgery. In some cases, I have treated patients who were able to hold off on surgery for months, and even years. In addition, acupuncture can be a great way to reduce post-surgical pain.

Getting ready for surgery. Acupuncture can optimize your health prior to surgery. Joint replacement surgery is a huge physical stressor on your body. Working with a practitioner of Chinese medicine with the goal of being in the best health possible prior to the event can help minimize the impact of surgery on your body. I consider these pre-surgical patients to be in training for a major event.

Let the healing begin. Once surgery is complete, acupuncture is a great supportive therapy to assist in the healing process. It can speed healing, reduce pain, and help restore your body to its pre-surgical health. In fact many hospitals offer acupuncture to their patients in the day or two after their surgery. In addition, some patients who go through post-surgical physical therapy decide to schedule an acupuncture treatment after their PT session for pain relief and balance.

Long term support. While many patients are just fine months and years after their joint(s) have been replaced, some people experience aches and pains in the joint when the weather turns cold or damp. When this happens, the options are to tough it out, take a pain reliever, or…that’s right, get some acupuncture.

Many people don’t think about acupuncture when they’re facing joint replacement because acupuncture can’t change the basic structure of the joint. However, those patients who do choose acupuncture as a supportive therapy find that the benefits are surprisingly effective.


*Names and identifying details have been changed.

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