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Study Says Acupuncture Eases Arthritis Pain

By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 21, 2004; Page A02

Acupuncture alleviates pain and improves movement for elderly people suffering from arthritis in their knees, according to a major federally sponsored study released yesterday.

The study of 570 elderly patients, the largest and best-designed study to evaluate acupuncture, found that those who received treatments for six months experienced modestly less pain and more agility. Previous attempts to demonstrate scientifically that acupuncture is effective have produced mixed results.


Barbara Leivent, a patient of Ping Zhang, a licensed acupuncturist, rests with acupuncture needles on her face during a face lift treatment at Zhang's office in Port Washington, New York October 28, 2004. Chinese Acupuncture Face Lift is based on the traditional Chinese medicine healing theory that the face is the place where the essence of "yin" organs and energy of "yang" organs merge together via energy channels called "meridians." The face is the only place where all 14 different meridians either end or start from. The acupuncture face lift works by inserting fine needles on the point from different meridians on the body, face, ear, scalp and local problem areas according to each individuals condition of imbalances. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton (Shannon Stapleton - Reuters)

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"Arthritis is a major public health problem, and our study shows that acupuncture is a safe and effective treatment," said Brian Berman, director of the University of Maryland Center for Integrative Medicine, who led the study. "I think there is sufficient evidence now to say this is no longer unproven."

Beyond showing the benefits of acupuncture for an ailment that afflicts millions of people, other experts said, the study demonstrated that mainstream science can validate some of the unconventional therapies that many Americans have begun using.

"For the first time, a clinical trial with sufficient rigor, size and duration has shown that acupuncture reduces the pain and functional impairment of osteoarthritis of the knee," said Stephen E. Straus, director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), the National Institutes of Health center that helped fund the $2.7 million study. "NCCAM has been building a portfolio of basic and clinical research that is now revealing the power and promise of applying stringent research methods to ancient practices like acupuncture."

Skeptics, however, called the study another in a series of examples of wasting taxpayer money on shoddy research that benefits only the purveyors of quack therapies.

"It won't surprise me if this study is touted as some kind of big breakthrough and a validation of acupuncture. But the fact is that it's a dismal piece of work that does little but show that placebos do have some small effects on measurements that depend on subjective interpretations," said Timothy Gorski, associate editor of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine. "For the money spent, this is a terrible return on the investment and one more argument for closing down the NCCAM, which has yet to produce anything of actual clinical value. These are considerable funds, and it is a scandal that they are not being devoted to something more promising."

Arthritis experts were less critical, saying the study appeared to be well conducted and suggested that acupuncture might provide some benefit as a complement to standard care, though the improvements the patients experienced were fairly modest.

"The good news is this is a very well done, very large study," said David Felson, a Boston University rheumatologist, speaking on behalf of the Arthritis Foundation. "But the effect is almost so small as to be almost undetectable. Individual patients are going to have a hard time getting noticeable benefit from this treatment."

More than 20 million Americans suffer from arthritis, also known as osteoarthritis. Painkillers can help, but they can also have side effects. Patients have been seeking alternatives, especially in light of recent concerns about side effects of Vioxx, Celebrex and similar drugs.


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