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Sugar Injections for Knee Arthritis May Ease Pain

But at least one expert questions benefits of the alternative treatment
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WebMD News from HealthDay

By Steven Reinberg

HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, May 20 (HealthDay News) -- Injections of a sugar solution appear to help relieve knee pain and stiffness related to osteoarthritis, a new study suggests.

The technique -- known as dextrose prolotherapy -- has been around for 75 years but is still considered an "alternative" therapy.

"Our study suggests very strongly that prolotherapy is a safe and appropriate therapy for people with mild to moderate knee osteoarthritis that hasn't responded optimally to other therapy," said lead researcher Dr. David Rabago, an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison.

"We don't know exactly what the mechanism of action is," Rabago said. "One theory is the injections trigger a healing response at the point of the injection."

It's this lack of biological evidence that has kept prolotherapy from winning mainstream medical acceptance.

"Like a lot of complementary and alternative therapies, prolotherapy has existed mainly outside academia," Rabago said. "It's not something that's taught in med school."

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, affecting nearly 27 million Americans, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Symptoms, which are related to wear and tear, usually start after age 40 and progress slowly. In the knee, arthritis causes pain, swelling and reduced motion.

For the study, published in the May/June issue of the journal Annals of Family Medicine, researchers assigned 90 patients with knee arthritis to either sugar injections, saline injections or exercise at home.

Patients who received injections got them at weeks one, five and nine, and at 13 and 17 weeks if needed.

After a year, patients given the sugar injections had less pain and better function as measured by test scores than those who were given saline or who only exercised, Rabago's group found.

On scores of function, the sugar-injection patients improved 16 points, compared to five points for saline patients and seven points for exercise patients. Individual knee pain scores also improved more in the prolotherapy group, the study found.

Most patients who received prolotherapy were satisfied, and no adverse side effects were reported, the researchers said.

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