Knee osteoarthritis is a painful condition that occurs when the cartilage at the knee joint -- meant to provide "cushion" between the bones -- wears away, causing pain and stiffness. The condition is also quite common, affecting nearly one in two people by the time they reach age 85, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While there's no cure for the condition, it's often treated with drugs, therapy and sometimes even surgery. But a small new study shows that acupuncture could be a viable option to relieve symptoms, too.
The study, published in the journal Acupuncture in Medicine , included 90 people with an average age of 71 who had knee pain because of osteoarthritis.
Their osteoarthritis was severe enough to merit surgery, but only a little more than half -- 50 of them -- said that they would actually be prepared for surgery. Twenty-nine of them said they would not have surgery, and four of them said that they would have surgery, but only as a final option.
The study participants received weekly acupuncture treatments for a month, and then once every six weeks thereafter.
Not all the study participants received acupuncture for the same amount of time -- by the time a year had passed, 41 of them were still receiving it; by the time two years had passed 31 were still receiving it. However, the average number of sessions each study participant had gone through was 16.5.
The British researchers found that undergoing acupuncture treatments for one month seemed to decrease pain and stiffness that comes with osteoarthritis. Plus, the benefits continued over the two-year period.
This is not the first time acupuncture has been identified as a possible treatment for osteoarthritis symptoms. A 2004 study in the same journal also showed that pain symptoms were decreased when study participants either only received acupuncture, or acupuncture plus medications.
So what exactly is it about acupuncture that seems to provide its healing effects? Experts still aren't totally sure.
"We know it works, we just don't know why," Dr. Leena Mathew, an attending physician in Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, told The Atlantic last year. "It's very hard to translate into Western language."
If you're interested in trying acupuncture but aren't sure where to start, we've rounded up some tips on what to expect at your first session from wellness editor Dr. Patricia Fitzgerald and acupuncturist Christina Moores, M.S., L.Ac., who works in Long Island:
It can be tough knowing where to start when beginning any new kind of treatment. First things first: know what to look for in your practitioner. Moores says "you should always check that [your acupuncturist is] licensed and in good standing." Visit www.nccaom.org to find someone reputable. He or she should be licensed in your state and also nationally by the NCCAOM (National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine). If you are turning to acupuncture to treat a specific condition, mention it ahead of time to your practitioner. Moores says to ask if he or she has any specific experience in treating that ailment. "Usually hearing the answer will give you a good idea of whether or not you can trust him or her," she points out. Since you will be working intimately with your accupuncturist, it is imperative to ensure you're comfortable together. Even if the accupuncturist is well-regarded, if you don't feel at ease, then Moores says "you are cutting yourself and your healthcare short." Flickr photo by Kara Allyson
In order to entirely reap the benefits of this treatment, try your best to come to the appointment with an open mind. Moores explains: "Acupuncture works whether you believe it in or not. However, people will say you have to believe in it to work." Moores says that the shifts that occur from acupuncture are "subtle changes," meaning that those who are more in touch with their bodies can more easily notice them, while those who are less in-tune may take a longer time to feel any differences. Flickr photo by James Qualtrough
Prepping for an acupuncture treatment consists of many different variables: it's best to be conscious of when you arrive, what you eat and even how you smell! Food-wise, Moore suggests eating something light before your appointment. "If you don't eat anything before, you can feel weak after the treatment because a lot of energy is moving around," she says. It's also best to stay away from caffeine for the day, if you can. And consider skipping the coffee before your visit, since it acts as a stimulant. Acupuncture shouldn't be stressful (just the opposite -- it is meant to relieve stress!). Come to your session early so you can relax. "You do not want to be rushing though an acupuncture session," Fitzgerald notes. She also reminds us of the golden rule: use the bathroom before you go! Solid advice, as you may be on the table for a half hour or longer. If possible, do not wear any scented creams or fragrances the day of your appointment. Moores explains that "a lot of people are sensitive. I treat things like headaches ... plenty of patients say 'what's that smell? It's giving me a headache."' While you may not be affected by certain scents, it's best to be mindful of other patients who might be particularly sensitive. Lastly, the omnipresent question -- what should I wear? -- has an easy solution. While your acupuncturist will likely provide a gown, Dr. Fitzgerald suggests wearing loose-fitting clothing for comfort. Flickr photo by nicolasnova
Both Fitzgerald and Moores recommend bringing medical records, even if you think they are unrelated to your treatment. "The acupuncturist will spend a lot of time asking questions that might not even seem related to your condition," Fitzgerald says. He or she may ask about digestion, sleep paterns, gynecological history, mental health issues and more. Chinese medicine looks at all conditions as "interrelated," even if there's no obvious connection in the Western view. Moores agrees: "If you have a history of medications, diagnostic tests, MRIs, always bring them; when you have any diagnostic test, blood test or anything, you should keep a copy. Those results can help us." Flickr photo by breahn
Even if you're a rookie to this old practice, make sure you're understanding everything that's happening. "Remember it is your visit and your health," Fitzgerald says. "Make sure you communicate your needs and everything you can about your condition so the acupuncturist can have as much information as possible for your assessment. If something is not clear, don't be shy to ask for clarification." Speak up to advocate for yourself. "Your practitioner could explain things in Eastern terminology," she continues. "Be sure to ask for clarification and don't hesitate to make sure you understand your treatment protocol." Flickr photo by paparutzi
It's normal for the acupuncturist to check your tongue to assess the general health of your organs and meridians. Your practitioner will also check your pulse, which Moores says can reveal a lot. "It can tell you what's going on in the body as far as stagnation and stress," she explains. "We're not really checking for the rate." Flickr photo by nathanmac87
If you're Trypanophobic, we'll give it to you straight: more likely than not, your acupuncturist will be using needles. If you're feeling just a little wary, know that, as Moores puts it, "acupuncture needles are sterile, one-time use disposable needles." They are also incredibly flexible and not at all like those used to draw blood. But do they hurt? "That's the one big question," Moores says. "I don't think [it hurts]," she continues, "most people don't think so." But while it's not necessarily a painful experience, you may feel sensitivities on different areas of the body. "Sometimes you can feel a little qi sensation -- we call it a 'zing.' It's when the needle hits the nerve," she says, comparing it to the feeling you get when you hit your funny bone. Some spots may bleed once the needles are removed -- the ears are a particularly sensitive area. If this happens, the blood is usually less than a drop, and the bleeding will stop before you leave the office. Flickr photo by SuperFantastic
After the session, be sure to rehydrate. "Definitely drink water because we're getting the energy to circulate because you want to be hydrated," Moores says. Once you leave, you should be a-OK to continue about your day. In fact, you may not feel a thing. "As you start getting regular treatments," Moores says, "you may notice feeling more uplifted. Flickr photo by Svadilfari
This health video focuses on the different benefits acupuncture can provide for many different illnesses.