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."
"In my experience, acupuncture has generally been helpful for osteoarthritis. There is some controversy about how it works, but it's certainly a reasonable thing to try," says Judith Peterson, MD, a trained acupuncturist. "I try to do what offers the best result for the patient. For arthritis that might mean a combination of exercise, medicine, adapting the environment, and acupuncture." Peterson, who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation, is a clinical assistant professor at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia.