FORT WORTH, Texas – The largest, longest, most rigorous scientific trial of acupuncture conducted has found the ancient Chinese medical treatment safe and effective in helping relieve pain and restore function in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee, researchers announced this week.
The randomized, controlled study involved 570 patients who received acupuncture in addition to whatever drugs they were already using.
With acupuncture, patients showed a significant increase in function by week eight, and by week 14 a significant decrease in pain, said Dr. Brian Berman, principal investigator and director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
The report is practically the only good news that people with arthritis have received lately. Researchers have reported an increased risk of heart disease and strokes associated with popular prescription arthritis drugs Vioxx and Celebrex, both COX-2 inhibitors. Vioxx was taken off the market in late September, and Friday the U.S. Food and Drug Administration advised doctors to consider prescribing alternatives to Celebrex, when indicated.
On Monday, scientists stopped a study testing whether naproxen and Celebrex would reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. They noted an increase in heart attack and stroke among participants who were taking naproxen, an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory pain reliever on the market for nearly 30 years.
Many people with arthritis do not get acceptable pain relief with any drugs, researchers said Monday.
Patients receiving traditional Chinese acupuncture reported a 40 to 45 percent improvement in both calculated pain and calculated impairment. A second group receiving “sham acupuncture” reported a 30 percent improvement compared with a group receiving only education and counseling in addition to whatever they were taking for their disease.
The “sham acupuncture” mimicked true acupuncture except that the needles used did not puncture the skin at points around the knees and ankles.
The pain relievers the test subjects were taking included 11 percent on high-dose acetaminophen, 30 percent on various NSAIDs (such as aspirin, naproxen), 28 percent on COX-2 inhibitors and 6 percent on narcotic analgesics.
Physicians involved in the study, funded by the National Institutes of Health and conducted by the University of Maryland School of Medicine, announced the results in a telephone news briefing Monday.
More than 20 million Americans suffer from osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative or “wear and tear,” arthritis. It is the major cause of functional limitations in people 65 and older living in community settings, said Dr. Marc Hochberg, head of the division of rheumatology at the University of Maryland and co-investigator for the study.