As a licensed acupuncturist, I have successfully treated the pain caused by osteoarthritis in the knee with acupuncture and other Chinese medical modalities. Acupuncture treatment for this condition has been shown to relieve knee pain and weakness, and could serve as an alternative to steroid shots or even surgery depending on when treatment begins and how your body responds.
Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form of arthritis. It is caused by the wearing away of the cartilage that acts as a cushion in our joints. There are many different causes of osteoarthritis in the knee such as genetics, overuse, infection, and repetitive stress injuries. Interestingly, knee arthritis is most commonly seen in women over the age of 55. The symptoms are swelling, pain, stiffness, weakness and decreased range of motion. Western medical treatment includes everything from rest, ice, heat, maintaining body weight, as well as steroid shots and surgery.
The Traditional Chinese Medical (TCM) model looks at OA with an eye on the whole body, not just the knees. The smooth flow of Qi and Blood is essential to a healthy body. In TCM, pain is generally caused when Qi and Blood are not flowing properly in the body to nourish muscles and tendons. There are several TCM patterns that could impede the flow of Qi and Blood to the knees including Qi and Blood Deficiency, Deficiency of the Kidney and Liver organ systems (in TCM the Kidney organ system governs the bones, while the Liver organ system governs the tendons), Wind Cold Damp or Wind Heat invasion or Phlegm Stagnation. To determine the TCM diagnosis, a licensed acupuncturist will ask a series of seemingly unrelated questions looking for indicators that point toward one or more of the potential patterns mentioned above. For example, if the patient prefers cold on his or her knees, then the pattern most likely involves heat, whereas if the patient prefers heat, then the pattern most likely involves cold. This is how I approached my last patient with OA of the knee.
My patient is a 60-year-old man who works as a remodeler. When he first came to see me in June, he had been feeling pain and weakness for about six months. He had been to an orthopedist and was diagnosed with OA and cartilage degeneration. He received steroid shots which relieved the pain, but he reports that the pain returned after about six weeks. On the day of his initial visit, he was experiencing severe pain when walking up and down stairs, and weakness with walking. He also reported that he had been unable to sit on his knees, or kneel for several months. I recommended that he come for acupuncture treatments once a week for six weeks to start, and then we would reevaluate. The acupuncture treatment involved placing needles in specific locations above, below and on both knees. Other points were included on the hands, feet and ears to facilitate Qi and Blood flow, strengthen the Kidney and Liver systems, dispel wind and reduce dampness, and calm the mind.
When the patient came for his second treatment, he reported much less pain in his knees after the first treatment. By the fourth visit he reported great improvement in his knee pain. He was back to working at his full speed with climbing stairs and ladders and other physically demanding work. We re-evaluated his treatment plan during the sixth visit and moved treatments to every other week, focusing on maintaining the pain-free state.
This patient has maintained his acupuncture treatments every other week for several months. He experiences a slight set back during a time when he has a particularly challenging work schedule or project, but overall his knees are much improved. The type of work he does is very challenging to his knees, therefore I recommend that he continue to come for acupuncture treatment every two weeks for the next few months, at which time he may improve to an even greater extent and be able to start coming once a month.
Marian Kimball Eichinger has a Master of Science in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. She is no longer practicing at Wellness Minneapolis.