Acupuncture for Knee Osteoarthritis

  • As the Baby Boomers are creeping over-60 age group, the number of people affected by knee osteoarthritis is exploding. Everyone has two knees, which automatically doubles the numbers of arthritic knees proportionate to the number of people. Some feel pain and stiffness after sitting for long periods of time, others feel pain while moving. Knee pain is literally bringing the world to its knees.


    Most people want to avoid surgery as long as possible because, quite frankly, amputating a knee joint is a big deal that takes months of recovery. In the effort to keep moving and stay comfortable, medicines like NSAIDs or opioids offer relief but the side effects are not worth the pain relief sometimes. Supplements like fish oil are not all that they are claimed to be. And nobody wants to use walking sticks or canes. So what is a Baby Boomer to do if he/she wants to avoid surgery?

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    Try acupuncture. People around the world rely on acupuncture to help relieve pain from head to toe. Acupuncture is thought to not only help to relieve pain, but also restore the qi (life energy force) flow and balance in the body. Qi is difficult to study. But in scientific studies, researchers have proven that acupuncture actually triggers a release of chemicals like the opioid peptides. In fact, the pain relieving effect of acupuncture has been known to be reversible by naloxone.1 Naloxone blocks the effects of opioids like morphine. So if naloxone blocks the effects of acupuncture like it blocks the effect of morphine, then acupuncture could have the same pain relieving powers as morphine.


    Well, sometimes acupuncture seems to have a stronger placebo effect than actual physiologic effect. When compared to sham acupuncture, sometimes real acupuncture works for knee osteoarthritis pain and other times real acupuncture does not seem to be more effective then sham acupuncture - not that there is anything wrong with a placebo effect because it still works.2  Whether or not acupuncture works is dependent on practitioner skills and patient beliefs. If someone believes that acupuncture will work, then it is more likely to work. If someone believes that acupuncture will not work, then it probably will not work. One study proved that delivering acupuncture treatment with statements like “this will work for you” had a much more positive influence than when the treatment was delivered with a statement like “it may or may not work."3 Those expectations about treatment are so important and are starting to be taken seriously by health care professionals because belief is powerful medicine.


    For those who believe that acupuncture will work, a trial of 10 to 12 sessions spaced out over three to four weeks should be enough to gauge the effectiveness. The confidence in the treatment sessions will be much higher with a very reputable practitioner, someone to believe in. Finding a good acupuncturist is made easier by the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine or the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Both organizations have “find a practitioner” search engines on their websites.


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    Anything is worth a try when it comes to keeping those knees moving away from the operating table. Adding acupuncture to the list of potential treatments for knee osteoarthritis makes sense, if not for scientific reasons, then for the very fact that people have believed in it for thousands of years.


    1. Pain. 1985 Sep;23(1):83-93
    2. Pain. 2012 Jun 20
    3. J Physiother. 2011;57(1):56.
Published On: July 09, 2012