Acupuncture a cheaper alternative to knee surgery

Acupuncture can relieve the pain of knee osteoarthritis and even offer a low cost alternative to surgery for the condition, according to new research in the UK.

A study was carried out on 90 patients with knee osteoarthritis, who underwent group acupuncture in two knee pain clinics in Hertfordshire in 2008.

The study participants, whose average age was 71, were monitored for two years.

The clinics were run in two GP practices by specially trained acupuncture nurses, to see whether this could improve care while reducing costs, and offer a viable alternative to referrals for expensive knee replacement surgery.

According to the experts, this type of surgery works well, and provides value for money. But it is not suitable for everyone, and as many as one in seven patients experience severe pain a few years after the procedure.

It also costs almost €6500 per operation, and knee osteoarthritis is common, causing significant pain in 17% of the UK population over the age of 50.

All the patients referred to the clinics had severe symptoms – constant pain, including at night, and inability to walk far – and would have been eligible for surgery.

Fifty patients said they would be prepared to have surgery; four said they would only have the operation as a last resort; and 29 said they did not want surgery.

They were given acupuncture once a week for a month after which the frequency was reduced to a session every six weeks.

Forty-one patients were still attending the clinics after a year, and 31 were still receiving treatment after two years. Each patient received an average of 16.5 treatments.

After one month of treatment, doctors measured symptom control, functional capacity, and wellbeing in the patients and discovered clinically significant improvements in pain levels, stiffness, and functional capacity.

These improvements continued throughout the two-year monitoring period, as assessed by a validated scoring system (MYMOP) at six monthly intervals.

Based on the assumption that only two thirds of patients would take up an offer of acupuncture, the authors calculate that the health service could over €100,000 a year.

The research was published online in the journal Acupuncture in Medicine.