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Is acupuncture beneficial for patients with osteoarthritis pain?

Many studies have investigated acupuncture treatment for a variety of conditions. My perspective, without being very familiar with the acupuncture literature, is that results have been mixed. Nevertheless, acupuncture is widely used by many types of practitioners. Though I do not practice acupuncture myself, I think it is important to have a working knowledge of the current evidence supporting or not supporting its efficacy and effectiveness. To that end, I recently read an article reporting results from a systematic review and meta-analysis of acupuncture for osteoarthritis pain.1

The term meta-analysis refers to a study that begins with a systematic literature review, and then combines and analyzes data from clinical trials that were reviewed. Results from meta-analyses are generally considered higher quality evidence than individual clinical studies and systematic reviews because of the combined strength of data from multiple studies.

The study authored by Manyanga et al., was published in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The authors concluded that the use of acupuncture is associated with mild but substantial improvements in pain intensity, quality of life, and functional mobility for patients with osteoarthritis. Data analysis suggested that acupuncture was most effective at reducing pain from osteoarthritis when provided for a period greater than 4 weeks. Quality of life and functional improvement were also improved modestly after acupuncture treatment. However, only relatively small improvements in pain were achieved. That doesn’t mean that every patient achieved only small improvements. It more accurately means that patients in the trials averaged small improvements. Some patients responded well to treatment, while others did not, resulting in a net effect of mild improvement.
The mechanisms underlying acupuncture therapy are still largely unknown and the practice of acupuncture is so varied that the authors could not make recommendations for specific points or needling methods. Nevertheless, it appears that several different acupuncture applications can result in measurable benefits for patients with osteoarthritis related pain.

Reference List

1. Manyanga T, Froese M, Zarychanski R, Abou-Setta A, Friesen C, Tennenhouse M, et al. Pain management with acupuncture in osteoarthritis: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2014;14:312.

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