Chances are that you or someone you know suffers from knee pain. In fact, about one-third of North Americans will report significant knee pain at some point in their life. It’s second only to back pain as being the most commonly reported kind of pain among adults.
Knee pain can be a game changer in terms of your quality of life. It can limit your range of motion, decrease muscle control, reduce leg strength, restrict your ability to walk, and be incredibly uncomfortable. One of the most common causes of knee pain is osteoarthritis of the knee, an age-related condition in which the cartilage has been worn down in the joint causing the bones to rub together painfully. Other causes of knee pain include overuse, trauma, poor biomechanics, ligament tears or strains, and overloading the knee from excessive weight gain.
Over the past thirty years, the incidence of reported knee pain has risen, accounting for a surge in knee replacement surgeries. Researchers speculate that this rise is due to the increasing number of aging Baby Boomers, but also due to an epidemic rise in obesity, which puts a great deal of stress on the knees.
Western biomedical treatments for knee-related pain include anti-inflammatory and pain medications, steroid injections, joint fluid or gel injections, and knee replacement surgery. For trauma related injuries to the knee, physical therapy or surgery to repair torn ligaments or a meniscus would also be standard treatment.
In Chinese medicine, your pain has something akin to a personality, and gives your acupuncturist a great deal of information about how best to treat you. For example, the exact location of your pain, whether or not there’s swelling, if it’s worse when the weather changes, what kinds of weather aggravates it, whether the knee feels warm, and any other factors that aggravate or alleviate your pain are all clues to the nature of your condition.
Many people with knee pain turn to acupuncture for relief, and several research studies have documented that this is a good move. Researchers have found that acupuncture can not only relieve the pain, but also increase function, especially for people with osteoarthritis of the knee. There are several mechanisms at work that explain acupuncture’s effectiveness. Where the needles are inserted locally show a marked increase in the circulation of white blood cells responsible for the anti-inflammatory response. In addition, acupuncture works to change your brain chemistry to increase the circulation of pain-relieving neurotransmitters, as well as chemicals that block pain signals coming into your brain.
If you choose to treat your knee pain with acupuncture, your practitioner will first spend time identifying the underlying cause of your pain. In their treatment, they will likely start with acupuncture, choosing to needle points near your pain, as well as other points on your body to deal with problems that are contributing to your discomfort and to support the healing process. For example, if the area around your knee is red and hot, your practitioner would choose points to clear the heat throughout your body. In addition to acupuncture, your practitioner may suggest an herbal formula to help speed up healing, as well as some dietary suggestions that can reduce the inflammation.
While acupuncture can’t repair a torn ligament or broken bone in your knee or leg, there are many instances where it can help relieve your pain, reduce inflammation, and speed up the healing process. Many patients with knee pain have been able to reduce the amount of pain medications they’re taking or delay knee replacement surgery by seeking out the help of an acupuncturist.
Dr. Jeda Boughton is a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine and the founder of BodaHealth in Vancouver, BC. She is also a Registered Herbologist, Registered Acupuncturist and is a Fellow of the American Board of Oriental Reproductive Medicine (FABORM), as well as a member of the North American Menopause Society (NAMS).