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The Science Behind Acupuncture As Treatment For Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis has a long history of treatment with holistic therapies, but there is a clearly defined science behind Acupuncture and treatment of the condition.

Acupuncture Explained

Acupuncture is one of the most ancient healing practices in the world and a key component of traditional Chinese medicine. Dating back about 2,000 years Acupuncture refers to a collection of procedures involving the stimulation of points on the body by using very thin, stainless steel needles. These needles penetrate through the skin at 365 meridian points and then are manipulated either manually or via electrical stimulation. Stimulation of these points is thought to correct the body’s imbalance in the flow of qi (pronounced CHEE). It is believed that the blockage in the flow of qi is the root cause of disease and illness.

Trying to understand qi, an invisible life source coursing throughout our bodies, has long baffled scientists and doctors – especially those trained in Western medicine. Skepticism about Acupuncture has long existed, and continues to this day. However, there is a growing body of research that supports the effectiveness of Acupuncture in the treatment of a variety of diseases and conditions – particularly with pain management. The medical and scientific community no longer view Acupuncture as quack medicine or as a treatment without merit.

The Science Behind Acupuncture

The scientific world does not fully understand how acupuncture works. Yet, with greater technological advancements scientists are able to utilize objective measurements such as neuro imaging, thermal imagining and doppler ultrasound to document the very real effects of Acupuncture. Research has demonstrated that Acupuncture impacts a variety of the body’s systems. It activates anti-inflammatory chemicals, releases particular hormones, and inhibits cell receptors – some of which control the pain experience. Early researchers believed that the benefits of Acupuncture resulted from the release of endorphins that caused the “feel good” sensation. However, recent research is demonstrating that there are possibly several mechanisms of action that occur with Acupuncture to include blood flow, the stretching of connective tissue, and nerve signals that reboot the autonomic nervous system. Some theories about how Acupuncture works include:

  • The release of neurotransmitters
  • Effects on the stress response system (or the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis)
  • Gate control theory in which stimulation of certain pain nerves creates a competing pain sensation in the body which results in a decrease of pain.

Neuroimaging studies show how specific networks in the brain respond during Acupuncture when different areas either light up or show a decrease in activity before, during, and following an Acupuncture treatment. In fact, many scientifically rigorous studies have demonstrated that Acupuncture calms areas of the brain that register pain, increase the blood flow in treated areas, and cause a decrease in inflammation.

A meta-analysis conducted in 2012 reviewed all of the relevant scientific research on Acupuncture and concluded that this form of ancient Chinese medicine is indeed effective in the treatment of chronic pain. It is also proving itself to be an effective non-pharmacological treatment for Osteoarthritis, Migraines, and Fibromyalgia.

The World Health Organization published a long list of the diseases, symptoms and conditions for which Acupuncture has been proven to treat as demonstrated through controlled clinical trials. There is an even longer list of all the body’s ailments where Acupuncture has demonstrated effective results, but research needs to be continued. These include a wide variety of circulatory disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, immune disorders, musculoskeletal disorders, ear-nose-and throat disorders, carpel tunnel, addictions and some psychiatric conditions. It also has a long and well-documented history of helping with post-operative nausea, the side effects of chemotherapy and chronic pain, such as the pain that occurs with Osteoarthritis.

Acupuncture and Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. Pain and stiffness resulting from Osteoarthritis has a significant impact on quality of life, activity level, and mobility. Western medicine’s treatment of choice is typically anti-inflammatory medication which often have unpleasant side effects.

Enough compelling studies have reported that the traditional form of Acupuncture delivered by a trained, qualified individual is more effective in pain relief of Osteoarthritis than a placebo. Pain management research on Acupuncture has been rigorous enough that the Osteoarthritis Research Society International released recommendations in 2008 stating that Acupuncture may be an important component of treatment for Osteoarthritis of the knee. The US National Institutes of Health and the UK’s World Health Organization have both endorsed the use of Acupuncture for Osteoarthritis of the knee.

Acupuncture, like any medical treatment, needs to be administered by a highly and properly trained Acupuncturist. Most states require Acupuncturists to be licensed and the FDA requires all needles to be new and sterile. If using an Acupuncturist, do your research and avoid shams and poorly trained Acupuncturists that put you at risk for harm.

By: Alicia DiFabio, Psy.D


  • Vickers, AJ; Cronin, AM; Maschino, AC (2012). Acupuncture for Chronic Pain Individual Patient Data Meta-analysis”. Arch Intern Med: 1. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2012.3654.
  • Zhang, W; Moskowitz, RW; Nuki, G; Abramson, S; Altman, RD; Arden, N; Bierma-Zeinstra, S; Brandt, KD et al. (2008). “OARSI recommendations for the management of hip and knee osteoarthritis, Part II: OARSI evidence-based, expert consensus guidelines” (PDF). Osteoarthritis and Cartilage 16 (2): 137–162. doi:10.1016/j.joca.2007.12.013. PMID 18279766
  • Beck, M. (2010) Decoding an Ancient Therapy: High-Tech Tools Show How Acupuncture Works in Treating Arthrisits, Back Pain, Other Ills. The Wall Street Journal, Health Journal.
  • Berman, B. M., Lao, L., Langenberg, P., Lee, W.L., Giopin, A.M.K., & Hochberg, M.C. (2004). Effectiveness of Acupuncture as Adjunctive Therapy in Ostearrthritis of the Knee: A Randomized, Control Trial. Annals of Internal Medicine, 141 (12): 901-910.

Alicia DiFabio, Psy.D. is a freelance writer with a doctorate in psychology. Her personal essays and parenting articles have appeared in various newspapers and magazines. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and four girls, one of whom has extensive special needs. She can be found writing about her adventures in parenting at her blog, Lost In Holland.

Natural Treatment for Osteoarthritis