For almost everyone who lives long enough, arthritis will be a part of life. The effects of arthritis rob us of our mobility and ability to live our lives fully. In Western medicine, these changes in the joints are known as degenerative joint disease or osteoarthritis. Often, the patient is given pain pills and expected to live a life of increasing discomfort and disability. At some point, joints may be replaced. And that is all there is to look forward to. After all, our bodies just degenerate over time and then we die. How depressing! Especially since this is untrue.
Although it is true that our joints will change over time, those changes are simply proof that we have lived long and well. Many people whose joints appear terrible on X-ray and examination have very good function, while others with normal-looking joints suffer terrible pain. Why? The reason is quite simple. The function of the joint is not dependent on the joint cavity alone. The function is actually dependent upon many factors, including the muscles, ligaments, tendons, blood supply and joint fluid. The actual joint is only one component of these multifaceted structures which allow you to walk, bend, reach, lift and move.
The good news is: many of these components can actually improve over time. But you have to work at it. Daily exercises that increase strength, flexibility and endurance will improve function over time. Basically, the more you stay active, the more functional you will become.
Treatment Techniques for Arthritis
Perhaps you are wondering, how can I get moving when I can’t even get off the couch without pain? There are many techniques which can be useful. The first is Western medicine. Ask your doctor for strong pain medications. These powerful chemicals can help you sleep better, improve your energy and help you get off the couch. If your joints are still painful, steroid injections can help turn that around. However, keep in mind that these chemicals only give you a temporary respite from the pain. If your pain improves as a result of these techniques, you need to follow up these improvements with physical therapy. These chemicals give us a narrow window to begin daily routines that will increase our function over time. Hopefully, you will have enough time to increase strength, flexibility and endurance so that when the steroid or medicines have run their course, you will still be pain-free because you are now stronger and healthier than before.
However, you may decide that using medications is not a good strategy. Indeed, many prescription pain pills have serious side effects, and steroid injections can only be used three times per joint per lifetime. Some people have found that these Western medicine techniques only give partial relief, and are determined to find a treatment which provides more complete relief.
This is where acupuncture can be very useful. Acupuncture can help reduce pain and inflammation. And by doing so, help you get back on your feet and begin the physical therapy that will ultimately give you back improved function.
Sure this sounds good, but where is the proof? Can acupuncture really help people with arthritis? I am a physician and I perform acupuncture. I am sure that my acupuncture helps people with arthritis. But don’t take my word for it. There is scientific proof from clinical trials that acupuncture can actually help.
Clinical Trials Test Effectiveness of Acupuncture
Over the past several years, researchers have been working hard to understand acupuncture. One way to do this is by performing clinical trials on acupuncture. A clinical trial is simply a way of looking at the effects of acupuncture on a group of patients with a certain disease. First, a group of patients with a given disease is identified: for example, arthritis of the knee. Tests and X-rays are performed to demonstrate that the patients all have the same disease. Next, acupuncture is given to half of the patients while the other half receives standard medical care. After a certain amount of time and treatments, all of the patients are checked to see whether they have improved, and the two different groups are compared. The improvements (or lack of improvements) of the patients treated with acupuncture is compared with the group who did not get acupuncture to determine the effectiveness of the treatment.
Acupuncture & Low Back Pain
A study was published in 2003 in the British Journal for Rheumatology1 in which the group wanted to determine whether acupuncture was an effective, safe adjunctive treatment to standard therapy for chronic low back pain in older patients. The subjects were randomly separated into two groups. The control group of patients continued their usual care as directed by their physicians and used medications and back exercises. Subjects in the acupuncture group also received biweekly acupuncture for a period of five weeks. At the end of six weeks, the patients who had received acupuncture experienced a significant decrease in their pain, and fewer patients in the acupuncture treatment group had medication-related side effects. The researchers concluded that acupuncture was “an effective, safe adjunctive treatment for chronic low back pain in older patients.”
Acupuncture & Knee Pain
A study measuring the effectiveness of acupuncture as a treatment for knee pain was published in 2004 in the British Medical Journal2. The patients were randomly separated into two groups. One group received acupuncture plus diclofenac, a powerful anti-inflammatory medication, and the other group received “placebo” acupuncture plus diclofenac. In the placebo acupuncture group, patients were given treatments where the needle did not penetrate into the patient’s body. After twelve weeks and eleven acupuncture treatments, the scientists found that acupuncture plus diclofenac was “more effective than placebo acupuncture plus diclofenac for the symptomatic treatment of osteoarthritis of the knee.”
Acupuncture & Neck Pain
In 2006, a German group reported a study that was carried out on 14,161 (not a typo!) patients with chronic neck pain3. Patients were placed in either an acupuncture treatment group or a control group in which they received no acupuncture. Patients in the acupuncture group received acupuncture treatments over three months. All subjects were allowed to receive usual medical care. After three months, the patients treated with acupuncture improved more than patients who only received usual medical care.
These studies show that acupuncture has been proven to be an effective treatment for arthritic pain control. This is a technique that has essentially no side effects. Of course, it’s essential to follow up the improvements with physical therapy so that you can begin your journey to better function and overall health. Remember, the only lasting pain relief will come from a body that is stronger and healthier. This is something that all of us should work on every day.