Acupuncture originated in China thousands of years ago. It improves health and well-being which is done by inserting thin needles into specific body points. This practice also found its way in the US that an estimated 2.1 million Americans used acupuncture according to a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The effect of acupuncture has been studied to include people with knee osteoarthritis. The National Institute of Health with its components, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) has found that acupuncture may help in relieving the pain of osteoarthritis. This will lead to improving the function of patients suffering from the disease.

The results of this study were published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, December 21, 2004 issue. So far, this was the largest randomized, controlled phase III clinical trial of acupuncture. Other similar studies were only limited in scope and duration.

Participants to this study were 570 people aged 50 and older who were documented of suffering from severe pain in their knees. All of them had never had acupuncture prior to their joining the study. Records of these patients showed that they never had knee surgery, used steroids or similar injections six months prior to the study.

To determine the effect of acupuncture on osteoarthritis, participants received three kinds of "treatments". One group received true acupuncture, another received "sham" acupuncture, and a third group participated in a self-help group on managing their condition. In both true and "sham" acupuncture treatments, patients were prevented from seeing the knee treatment area. They did not know also which of the two treatments they received. The third group of 189 participants attended six, 2-hour sessions for 12 weeks based on the proven and effective Arthritis Foundation's Arthritis Self-Help Course model.

While joining the study, all participants went on with their regular medications from their physicians. They took anti-inflammatory medications including COX-2 selective inhibitors, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and opiodic pain medications.

At the onset of the study all the patients were made to undergo a standardized assessment of their pain and knee function to establish an initial record of their condition. One such assessment is the Western Ontario McMasters Osteoarthritis Index (WOMAC). Then their progress was assessed in the 4th, 8th, 14th, and 26th weeks.

Results showed that patients who received acupuncture showed a significant increase in function by week 8, and a decrease in pain by week 18 compared with the sham and control groups. Using the WOMAC, results showed a consistent declining trend until week 26.

When the overall results were compared with initial data, there was a 40% decrease in pain and a nearly 40% improvement in function in patients who received acupuncture.

According to Dr. Stephen E. Strauss, M.D. and NCCAM Director, this is the first study with sufficient rigor, size and duration that showed the benefits of acupuncture to osteoarthritis sufferers. Due these results when asked for health insurance quotes will acupuncture for osteoarthritis be included in most plans.

Dr. Stephen I. Kats, M.D., Ph.D., and NIAMS Director also stressed the importance of seeking effective means of decreasing osteoarthritis pain and increasing function given that more that 20 million Americans have this disease.