During my 30 years of practice, I’ve seen a large number of patients with knee pain. Most were middle-aged or above and had a diagnosis of osteoarthritis, and many of them were able to get relief from their pain, enough so that they were satisfied with their results. Those who called for appointments were generally not getting sufficient relief from pain medication or were concerned about side effects.
Others who called had suffered some kind of injury to the knee playing sports, working, or from an accident. This particular article is about osteoarthritis. Other common knee injuries that acupuncture can help are discussed in different articles on this website.
Osteoarthritis results when wear and tear have caused the cartilage in the knee joint to wear away. When this happens, the joint loses its cushioning and the bones rub more closely against one another, resulting in pain, stiffness, swelling, reduced mobility, and sometimes the development of bone spurs.
Here is how acupuncture helps
My first strategy is to increase the circulation of healing energy (called “chi” in Chinese) in the acupuncture channels that traverse the knee. This in itself will help to reduce pain, stiffness and swelling. I also like to include points that balance the energy of the whole body, as this further enhances the healing response.
My second strategy is to needle tender acupuncture points around the joint. This has a more direct on affected tissues than the first strategy. Both together act synergistically.
The two strategies together will do three things:
First, they will increase the production of hormones, like endorphins and enkephalins, which inhibit the perception of pain.
Second, they will work through the nervous system to block the perception of pain in the brain. Studies using MRIs have shown an increase in the activity of pain-killing receptors in the brain.
Third, they will deactivate trigger points. Trigger points are tender and extremely reactive areas that develop in the muscles and fascia that can cause chronic pain . They are frequently found around arthritic joints and can be a secondary source of pain.
Acupuncture will not restore the anatomically observable deterioration of the knee to a normal state, but I have found that it is very effective in reducing the pain that accompanies the deterioration. I also use manual myofascial release techniques when appropriate, when the movement involved does not stress the joint itself, to release tightness in muscles that are inhibiting movement of the knee joint and perhaps contributing to its deterioration.
I always suggest my patients try at least four treatments to see if acupuncture is working for them. If they are getting progressive pain relief, we can continue. If not, we stop. This is my policy with any condition I treat, not just osteoarthritis.