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Alternative Ways to Easing Arthritis Pain

Experts look at the pros and cons of alternative arthritis therapies.

Sticking It to Arthritis Pain continued...

The University of Maryland School of Medicine completed a four-year NIH-funded study, the largest ever undertaken, to determine how well acupuncture works. The results, published in December 2004 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found that traditional Chinese acupuncture significantly reduces pain and improves function for patients with knee osteoarthritis who have moderate or more severe pain despite taking pain medication.

However, a more recent study published in the same journal in July 2006 found no significant difference in reported pain or function between patients with osteoarthritis of the knee who received acupuncture or a sham procedure.

Larry Altshuler, MD, is a board-certified internist in Oklahoma City who practices both conventional and alternative medicine. He uses acupuncture on his arthritis patients and says he was "pleasantly surprised" when his patients reported they were getting relief from their pain. "Most of my patients have had beneficial results from acupuncture," says Altshuler.

Helpful, Healthy Supplements?

Glucosamine and chondroitin are nutritional supplements that are being studied for their effectiveness in treating arthritis. While significant evidence in the past has shown the supplements work, a newer study has stirred debate in the medical community.

Could these supplements offer nothing more than a placebo for people with mild arthritis? Are they best for those with moderate to severe pain, as the new research suggests?

Jason Theodosakis, MD, says that "first-line therapies" for the treatment of arthritis should always be improving biomechanics, injury prevention, weight control, and low-impact exercise. Theodosakis is an assistant clinical professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine; he serves on the oversight committee for a $16 million NIH trial on glucosamine and chondroitin.

"But there is also enough scientific evidence -- 42 human clinical trials to date -- to recommend the use of glucosamine and chondroitin," says Theodosakis, also the author of The Arthritis Cure.

In 2003, an analysis of 15 studies of glucosamine and chondroitin was published in Archives of Internal Medicine. The studies involved a total of 1,775 patients - 1,020 taking glucosamine and 755 taking chondroitin.

Researchers found "significant changes" in the symptoms of patients taking them - pain, stiffness, physical functioning, and joint mobility; no placebo group showed that kind of improvement. Glucosamine significantly improved joint space narrowing; it also helped slow the progression of osteoarthritis, researchers found.

Taking at least 1,500 milligrams of oral glucosamine sulfate for at least three years was the most effective in slowing the degenerative process, they reported. While there were similar findings on chondroitin, those findings were not as clear-cut. Overall safety of both glucosamine and chondroitin can be considered "excellent," according to researchers.

More recently, a study funded by the National Institutes of Health looked only at pain reduction from glucosamine-chondroitin supplements. The study was conducted at 16 sites across the country -- and was the most rigorous examination of the widely used supplements ever done, according to researchers, whose study appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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