How Acupuncture Helps Knee Pain

Acupuncture involves inserting very thin needles into the skin at specific points on the body. This traditional Chinese medicine practice originated thousands of years ago and is based on the premise that inserting these needles into points on the body restores the flow of qi—the body’s energy—to promote healing, reduce pain, and encourage relaxation. 

Acupuncture is thought to be helpful in addressing a variety of health conditions, including knee pain caused by arthritis or injury. Depending on the type and severity of your knee pain, treatments can help reduce the pain for days or weeks.

You can expect to notice an improvement of symptoms shortly after treatment, though some people may require several treatments before noticing an improvement in pain reduction. Acupuncture is often used as a complementary therapy, which is a treatment given in addition to conventional treatments or therapy, such as medication.

Acupuncture for knee pain

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How Acupuncture Benefits Knee Pain

Knee pain caused by osteoarthritis or injury can have a negative impact on quality of life, reducing mobility and even getting in the way of a good night’s sleep. Acupuncture can help provide much-needed relief for those with knee pain.

When the acupuncture needles are placed on the body, a signal is sent along the spinal cord to the brain which may trigger a release of endorphins—known as “feel good” hormones. Scientists believe this helps reduce pain.

Acupuncture also may decrease the production of cortisol in the body, a hormone that helps control inflammation. With reduced pain sensations and less inflammation after acupuncture treatments, knee function and mobility can be improved on a short-term basis. 

Many factors may play a role in the pain-relieving benefits experienced from acupuncture. Some evidence suggests that a person’s expectations and beliefs may have an impact on the results of acupuncture treatment.

Researchers are currently assessing whether a person’s expectation that acupuncture is beneficial contributes to a better outcome after acupuncture treatment.

In 2019, acupuncture was given a conditional recommendation in the treatment of osteoarthritis of the knee in the American College of Rheumatology/Arthritis Foundation guideline for the management of osteoarthritis of the hand, hip, and knee.

What the Research Shows

Many clinical studies support acupuncture’s ability to relieve knee pain. One study of 18,000 patients found that acupuncture is helpful for managing many conditions that cause chronic pain, including knee pain.

This study found significant differences between true and “fake” acupuncture during the trial, which indicates that acupuncture does effectively reduce pain and inflammation. 

A scientific review analyzed previous studies on pain management interventions after knee surgery and found evidence to support that acupuncture delays and reduces the use of opioid medication to relieve pain post-surgery.

Osteoarthritis

A systematic review analyzed 10 randomized control studies to determine whether or not acupuncture reduced pain and improved joint function in people with chronic (3+ months) osteoarthritis-induced knee pain.

People received between six and 23 sessions of acupuncture at least once a week for three to 36 weeks. The analysis determined that acupuncture can improve short- and long-term physical function and mobility, and appears to provide short-term pain relief (up to 13 weeks) in patients with chronic knee pain caused by osteoarthritis.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic disease that affects joints throughout the body, including the knee joint, causing pain and stiffness. Acupuncture shows promise for being beneficial in treating rheumatoid arthritis (RA). A review of 43 studies found that acupuncture alone and when combined with other treatment modalities benefits those living with RA.

Acupuncture may have anti-inflammatory, antioxidative effects and help regulate immune system function, helping improve the quality of life of those with rheumatoid arthritis. More research is needed to evaluate the effects of acupuncture and how it works to provide relief for RA.

Chronic Knee Pain

A variety of conditions and injuries can cause chronic knee pain, making mobility difficult and affecting a person’s quality of life. People with joint pain often turn to complementary therapies for pain relief, with acupuncture the most popular among the modalities.

One study found that acupuncture is generally effective in the short term but not in the long term. In the study, both needle and laser acupuncture resulted in modest improvements in pain at 12 weeks, but not at one year. Acupuncture resulted in modest improvements in mobility and function at 12 weeks but not significantly at the one-year mark. 

Acupuncture shouldn’t be used as the only therapy, but it may be integrated with other therapies and lifestyle changes.

Talk to Your Doctor Before Treatment

Before you try acupuncture, talk to your healthcare professional for guidance. Acupuncture shouldn’t be used as the only therapy, but it may be integrated with other therapies and lifestyle changes.

Risks and Side Effects 

Safety

Acupuncture is considered to be safe when administered by a trained, licensed professional. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, few complications have been reported from the use of acupuncture. It is important to ensure your practitioner uses sterile, one-time-use needles as regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Risks

The risks of acupuncture are low if you are working with a competent, licensed acupuncture practitioner who uses sterile needles. Before your first acupuncture session, talk with your practitioner to share all of your medical conditions and medications you are currently taking.

Contraindications and Precautions

If you have a pacemaker, you should not get electroacupuncture. Tell your acupuncturist if you have a bleeding disorder or take blood thinners. If you are pregnant or plan to become pregnant, talk with your practitioner ahead of time, as some acupuncture points are thought to stimulate labor.

Side Effects

Side effects of acupuncture include soreness, bruising, or bleeding at the site of needle insertion and dizziness. Less common side effects include fainting, increased pain, and nausea.

Working with a licensed, competent acupuncture practitioner can reduce the risk of unwanted side effects and complications. 

Overview of a Typical Acupuncture Session

During your first appointment, your practitioner will ask you questions to learn about your medical history, health, and lifestyle, as well as the condition you are there seeking treatment for. 

Before your acupuncture session begins, you will be asked to lie down or sit in a chair, depending on where the needles will be placed. You may need to roll up your sleeves or pant legs to allow your acupuncturist to access the body parts where needles will be inserted.

The acupuncturist will wipe the areas where the needles will be inserted with disinfectant (e.g., alcohol) before inserting the needles. The practitioner will then insert the needles on various locations on your body, including on or around your knee(s).

You should feel minimal to no discomfort when the needles are inserted. Some people report feeling relaxed or even energized when the needles are inserted. You should not feel any soreness or pain during treatment unless you are moving during treatment or a needle is improperly placed. 

The session may last anywhere from a few minutes up to 30 minutes or longer per treatment session. 

In addition to traditional acupuncture, there are other acupuncture options you may be offered: 

Electroacupuncture is a modified form of acupuncture that uses two needles (standard acupuncture uses one). A mild electrical current passes between the two needles, which provides additional stimulation to the acupoints.

In one research study, individuals with knee osteoarthritis reported significant improvements in their pain, stiffness, and physical function after electroacupuncture treatment.

Auricular (ear) acupuncture works on the theory that there are acupuncture points on the ear that correspond to every part of the body. A research review analyzed 10 studies on auricular acupuncture for pain relief and found that it can provide relief when used within 48 hours of the onset of pain. 

Battlefield acupuncture is a unique form of auricular acupuncture used by the military and many Veterans Affairs Healthcare Administration facilities for pain management. Studies show that it is effective at providing immediate pain relief, but more research is required to determine its effectiveness at relieving long-term pain.

Treatment Frequency

How often and how long you receive acupuncture treatments is individual, depending on your condition and the severity of your pain. Your acupuncturist may suggest you be seen once a week or more, over the course of several weeks or months. Your acupuncturist will work with you to determine how long to continue treatments, depending on your response to previous sessions. 

Finding a Practitioner 

If you are interested in getting acupuncture for knee pain, be sure to work with a licensed acupuncture practitioner. Most states require acupuncture practitioners to be licensed, though the education, training, and licensing varies from state to state. 

How to Find an Experienced and Licensed Practitioner

Ask your healthcare professional for recommendations, or search online for a list of licensed practitioners in your area. The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine has a directory and registry.

Cost and Insurance

Before trying acupuncture, check with your insurance to see if it will cover all or part of the cost. Many insurance providers in the United States provide some coverage for acupuncture. Costs per session can range anywhere from $75 to $200.

Some acupuncture centers offer treatments on a sliding scale for those who need it. There are also community clinics that provide acupuncture at low or zero cost.

A Word From Verywell

If you are living with knee pain due to injury or arthritis, acupuncture may help provide pain relief on a short-term basis. Be sure to check with your doctor before receiving your first acupuncture treatment.

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