Chronic knee pain is often experienced by older adults, some of whom turn to acupuncture in the hopes that this treatment can ease their condition.

Acupuncture is a popular form of alternative medicine that originated from China, where it has been practiced for millennia. It involves inserting very thin needles at certain points of the body in varying depths and is usually done to provide pain relief.

Findings of a new study, however, reveal that acupuncture is not as effective, at least as treatment for chronic knee pain, as what many believe. For the study, Rana Hinman, from the University of Melbourne in Australia, and colleagues involved 282 individuals who were at least 50 years old and suffering from chronic knee pain.

The subjects were randomly assigned to receive needle acupuncture, laser acupuncture, which involves hitting the acupuncture spots using low-intensity laser beam, sham treatment, and no treatment at all for a period of 12 weeks. In participants who were assigned with the sham laser acupuncture, a machine that was preset not to deliver the laser was used so the acupuncturist and the patients would not know that the treatment was a fake.

Three months later, the participants who were given needle and laser acupuncture treatments reported modest reduction in knee pain compared with those who did not receive any treatment. Interestingly, the patients who received the two treatments did not experience improved function and alleviated pain more than the participants who received the sham treatment, which means that the fake acupuncture is comparable to the real thing.

"In patients older than 50 years with moderate or severe chronic knee pain, neither laser nor needle acupuncture conferred benefit over sham for pain or function. Our findings do not support acupuncture for these patients," Hinman and colleagues wrote in their study published in JAMA on Oct. 1.

Although the study was small, health experts said that its findings are the same with earlier acupuncture studies that suggest the effects of the alternative treatment is not significant.

"There are individual studies with weakly positive effects, but systematic reviews generally either show no effect at all or a slight effect that is not clinically significant," said Steven Novella, from the Yale University School of Medicine.

The findings also suggest that the benefits associated with the treatment may be due to placebo effect.

"In our study, benefits of acupuncture were exclusively attributed to incidental effects, given the lack of significant differences between active acupuncture and sham treatment," the researchers said. "Continuous subjective measures, such as pain and self-reported physical function, as used in our study, are particularly subject to placebo responses."

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