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Acupuncture helps arthritic knees

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Study finds acupuncture helps arthritic knees
By Kathleen Fackelmann, USA TODAY

The ancient Chinese art of acupuncture offered people with arthritis of the knee significant pain relief, but it didn't seem to help people with chronic neck pain, according to two scientific studies out today.

Acupuncture, the practice of inserting needles into specific body points, has been practiced for some 2,000 years by the Chinese. But it has never been fully accepted or studied by U.S. physicians or scientists.

The results of this knee study, the largest of its kind, are likely to push doctors and patients to seriously consider this treatment along with standard therapies, says Stephen Straus, director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, which helped pay for the study.

In 2002, an estimated 2 million Americans used acupuncture, but Straus still thinks the procedure is underused.

"A study with this clarity and this rigor now will open eyes," he says.

Straus says that the knee study's results will offer patients with arthritis of the knee another option to relieve pain, a particularly important finding for patients now that Vioxx has been pulled from the market for safety reasons and a key rival, Celebrex, has been linked to heart attacks and strokes.

More than 20 million people in the USA suffer from osteoarthritis, a degenerative and often crippling disease of the joints. The condition is caused by wear-and-tear on the cartilage, the tissue that cushions the body's joints. With osteoarthritis that cartilage starts to break down, which often causes excruciating pain.

Brian Berman at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore and his colleagues took 190 people who suffered from osteoarthritis of the knee and treated them with acupuncture. They compared that group with 191 people who got sham acupuncture, the use of fake needles that didn't pierce the skin.

People getting genuine acupuncture got a 40% decrease in pain and a 40% improvement in knee function over the course of the 26-week study, he says. In many cases, that translates to a better ability to move about in daily life, he says.

Acupuncture might work by spurring the body to release natural painkilling substances called endorphins, Berman says. But the therapy might not work for all kinds of pain.

A second study, which also appears in today's Annals of Internal Medicine, indicates that acupuncture didn't help people with chronic neck pain, which can also be caused by arthritis, says John Klippel, president of the Arthritis Foundation.

Acupuncture is not a cure, adds Straus, who says the people with knee arthritis were already on standard painkillers such as aspirin or ibuprofen.

But with the addition of acupuncture, they got an extra measure of relief, an important finding for people who have scaled back their activities because of inadequate pain relief, Klippel says.

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