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Can 'Chi' Ease Arthritis Pain?

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During her third year of medical school, Liza was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. She entered her family practice residency in a wheelchair.

"I was taking 13 different drugs, which gave me high blood pressure," she recalls. "I experienced severe pain every day, and I thought I'd have to give up being a doctor."

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Instead she began actively searching for alternative treatments and tried acupuncture combined with biofeedback and meditation.

"I had treatments twice a week, with needles sticking out all over my arms and legs. The pain was much less, and the effect lasted for about two weeks," says Liza.

Today she needs only one medication to control her arthritis. She still needs acupuncture occasionally, she says -- "after playing 18 holes of golf."

Acupuncture uses hair-thin needles to stimulate specific points on the patient's body. "We often combine acupuncture with Chinese herbal medicine, diet, and tai chi, says Ian A. Cyrus, RAc, DiplAc, president of the American Association of Oriental Medicine in Catasauqua, Penn.

"The underlying principle is that chi, our natural energy, flows through the body in well-defined pathways or channels, and acupuncture can balance this flow of energy," says Cyrus, who practices oriental medicine at the Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. "Tai chi is a series of traditional exercises designed to similarly balance and regulate the flow of chi."

While western science isn't certain how tai chi and acupuncture actually work, evidence is accumulating that they do help patients with arthritis and other forms of chronic pain. The World Health Organization has concluded it may be helpful for several conditions including osteoarthritis, headache, gastritis, bronchitis, and low back pain. And an influential consensus conference convened by the National Institutes of Health in 1997 reported that acupuncture might be useful as an adjunct treatment for many forms of chronic pain.

"We think acupuncture does relieve arthritis pain," says Robert Spiera, MD, who specializes in rheumatology and arthritis at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. "While there aren't as many studies as we'd like, there have been studies showing benefit specifically in osteoarthritis of the knee. I've supported my patients in their decision to try acupuncture in addition to routine medical care and physical therapy."

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