Osteoarthritis can be a painful and debilitating condition affecting various joints of the body (often the knee, hip or hands). If the cartilage in a joint gets worn away, the body will respond by growing new bone. However if the bone grows abnormally like in osteoarthritis, misshapen joints can cause a lot of pain and limited movement.

Both acupuncture and herbal remedies can be used to treat osteoarthritis. Traditional Chinese Medicine views the abnormal bone growth as hardened phlegm on a background of long term deficiency that has led to the abnormal growth. Phlegm develops as an extreme form of damp in the body when the body becomes less able to transform and transport fluids, a function traditionally ascribed to the spleen. The dynamic energy to transform fluids is considered yang in nature so often acupuncture and herbs are focused on tonifying the spleen and kidney yang energy of the body.

On a more physical level, an acupuncture needle can go deeper into various areas (e.g. knees and hips) and start to stimulate healing in a way that is difficult to obtain with massage or topical herbal applications. Often people with long standing knee problems, for example, notice a quick difference once needles have been inserted into points surrounding the kneecap, often after just one or two sessions.

Research has now confirmed the effectiveness of herbal remedies and acupuncture for osteoarthritis. In January 2010, a Cochrane Review was published that showed that acupuncture could lead to improvements in pain after 8 and 26 weeks. In particular, people in the studies reviewed who had acupuncture found on average that their pain had improved by 4 points on a scale of 0 to 20. In addition they reported their physical functioning to have improved by 11 points on a scale of 0 to 68 on average (click here for article).

Topical application of herbs has also been found to be effective, as was highlighted in a second Cochrane review in June 2013. Chinese herbal patches and comfrey extract gel were shown to improve pain and function more than placebo. The most interesting finding, however, was that arnica gel was shown to improve both pain and physical function as much as standard non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. When Arnica gel was compared to ibuprofen, people who applied arnica rated their overall pain to be almost 4 points lower than those who applied ibuprofen after 3 weeks of use (40.4 compared to 44.2 out of 100). In addition, physical functioning was also found to be better in the arnica group. Comfrey extract cream was shown to reduce pain by 16 points compared to people who applied a placebo cream, and capsicum extract gel improved both pain and physical function when compared to placebo (click here for article).

This research is encouraging and suggests that natural approaches such as acupuncture and traditional topical herbal remedies can be a good first step in the management of osteoarthritis. Of course, research reviews tend to average out the benefits so a treatment plan that is tailored to your particular constitutional type should add further benefits in addition to the more standard approach discussed in the reviews.

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014


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