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How does acupuncture help for meniscal tears?
Acupuncture research is limited because it’s difficult to quantify its effects. The lack of high-quality evidence means we can’t draw reliable conclusions yet. And unfortunately, this means we can’t tell how well acupuncture works for treating meniscal tears.
Despite this, many people report finding acupuncture helpful for a wide range of symptoms and health conditions.
These include chronic pain, inflammation, arthritis and other musculoskeletal problems. Some research suggests that acupuncture may speed up post-operative recovery times too.
So, what is acupuncture, and can it help you recover from your meniscus injury?
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture has been used for thousands of years to treat various health disorders and is regarded as an important part of traditional Chinese medicine. It involves inserting very thin needles superficially into the skin at specific points on your body.
Acupuncture in Western medicine vs Chinese medicine
In Chinese medicine, Qi (‘chee’) is known as your vital life force, or energy. This energy is said to flow in and around your body along special energy pathways called meridians. For optimal health, the flow of Qi must be uninterrupted along these channels.
The aim of acupuncture in Chinese medicine is to correct the flow of energy in your whole body and restore (and maintain) physical and mental health and wellbeing through this.
In Western medicine the same needles are used but for different reasons.
Acupuncture used in Western medicine focuses on stimulating the cells and tissues in the needled area. The needles are thought to stimulate your natural pain relief, local immune responses and sensory nerves that block pain signals to your brain
The aim of Western acupuncture is to improve blood flow and reduce pain and inflammation in a localized area.
What does the research say?
Knee pain, osteoarthritis and meniscus tears
Most research in the area of knee acupuncture shows how acupuncture affects knee pain from osteoarthritis (OA) in particular.
OA is a painful degenerative condition that involves the bony surfaces and cartilage of a joint and is usually due to wear and tear.
Similar to OA, the symptoms of a meniscus tear usually include a stiff, swollen and painful knee joint. With more pain after activity and discomfort, tightness and weakness in the surrounding soft tissues.
With western medical journals publishing more and more studies supporting acupuncture and the similarities (mentioned above) between meniscal tear and knee OA symptoms, more doctors are prescribing acupuncture as part of a larger holistic treatment plan in patients with mild to moderate meniscus tears.
Although a meniscus tear is not necessarily classified as a chronic pain condition, its similarities to OA means it may possibly respond well if it is treated in a similar way.
New approaches to treatment emerging
There’s a conservative approach to the treatment of pain emerging, that’s backed up with strong evidence and guiding top-level healthcare institutions’ pain management protocols.
Acupuncture is one of the modalities included in this conservative approach.
In the UK, NICE (The National Institute for health and Care Excellence) now recommends exercise, acupuncture and manual therapy before any opioid medications for the treatment of ongoing pain.
In the US, the National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) backs the use of acupuncture for a number of common pain conditions and the World Health Organization (WHO) lists medical conditions that acupuncture may help treat, knee pain included.
Here’s a little look at some of the research about using acupuncture for knee pain and meniscus tears:
- Acupuncture can substantially reduce pain, increase mobility, and improve quality of life
- As a standalone treatment, it showed similar results to physiotherapy with regard to pain, function and quality of life
- When combined with medication, acupuncture has a better therapeutic effect in the early stages of knee OA than medication alone
- By blocking pain signals, it helps reduce pain and eases the tension associated with many musculoskeletal conditions, including knee pain
- Acupuncture was better than morphine in reducing acute pain (92% vs 78%), worked faster (20 minutes vs 35 minutes) and far fewer people had adverse effects (4 vs 85) than with morphine
- Acupuncture may have a positive impact on cartilage, hinting that it may play a role in promoting cartilage repair.
If you are interested in reading more of the research, this website offers a good amount of insight into acupuncture studies.
When reviewing acupuncture research, it’s evident that many studies report positive therapeutic effects of acupuncture. Acupuncture is said to cause physiological changes in the cells and tissues. And scientists predict these changes cause a cascade of other physiological events in the body.
We need to keep in mind that measuring the true extent of all the direct and indirect interconnected effects of acupuncture is almost impossible with the limited technology available to research scientists today.
Further studies will need to be done and as medical technology improves, hopefully we will see more robust evidence of the positive effects of acupuncture presented.
Acupuncture treatment sessions
How long does it take for acupuncture to work?
Every person is different, but most people tend to notice improvements after two or three sessions. It’s commonly reported that, with regular acupuncture sessions, you will observe less pain and an overall sense of wellness in both your psychological and physical health.
Sessions may last anywhere from a few minutes up to 30 minutes or longer per treatment session, depending on your needs and your practitioner’s protocols.
How many sessions do you need?
Scientists agree that acupuncture reduces knee pain, but they haven’t agreed on universally accepted treatment frequency. Most clinical trials have only used acupuncture twice per week, while Chinese clinical practices usually include three to five sessions per week.
Most acupuncturists will work according to your needs. They will assess you and determine the best frequency to give you the most successful outcome from your treatment.
Most common points used in knee pain acupuncture
ST36, ST35, SP10, EX-LE5, EX-LE2 are the most commonly used points in treating knee pain. However, there are many points as shown in the image below.
Dry needling vs acupuncture
Dry needling uses the same type of needle but doesn’t focus on ‘acupoints’ or energy meridians like acupuncture. It works instead on releasing myofascial trigger points to get a release of muscle tension and increased circulation.
Risks and side effects
Acupuncture is considered safe when done by a trained and licensed professional who is competent and uses sterile needles.
The most common side effects of acupuncture are tenderness or soreness at the needle insertion sites, bruising, or slight bleeding. Dizziness, fainting, increased pain and nausea are some of the negative effects but are much less frequent.
You should tell your acupuncturist if:
- You take blood thinning medications or have a bleeding disorder (acupuncture increases blood flow so could make you bleed).
- You’re pregnant or trying to become pregnant (certain points can stimulate labor).
- You have a pacemaker (you should not have electroacupuncture).
Finding an acupuncture practitioner
Acupuncture is not regulated in many countries which means that anyone can claim to be an acupuncturist.
Different types of acupuncture and specialities
There are different types of acupuncture available and many acupuncturists have a certain speciality area that they practise in. This can make it difficult to choose who to go to.
Whether you choose to go to someone who uses medical acupuncture, dry needling, or traditional acupuncture methods, it’s important to go to someone reputable and someone who is held accountable to certain standards.
Where to start
For treating your meniscus tear, it would be best to start by finding someone who is registered with a reputable acupuncture association in your country and who is also specially trained in treating pain in muscle and joint disorders.
Getting recommendations from your doctor or searching acupuncture association websites for registered practitioners will help you find someone reliable in your area.
Acupuncture should be part of your bigger picture
Remember though, as we explained in our article about meniscus tears, symptomatic treatment can help in the short term but tackling the cause of injury is the best solution for healing the structures in the knee and for preventing further or future injury.
Although acupuncture can help with pain and inflammation, and in some cases has shown to help heal the cartilage in the knee, it cannot replace a high-quality rehabilitation program that addresses the underlying causes of your meniscus tear or knee pain.
A structured strengthening and rehabilitation program that helps calm inflammation, supports and aligns your body better and reduces the strain on your knees is the best way to do this.
The Exakt Health App contains an evidence based exercise plan for meniscus tears and can help you recover. Whether you’re looking to get running again after your meniscus surgery, or if you want to avoid surgery by treating your meniscus injury through strength training and preventing further injury, we can help!
You can download the app for free and start your personalized treatment program today.
There are three main reasons why many people choose acupuncture to help treat their meniscus tears:
1) It doesn’t involve any medications
2) There are no major side effects
3) It can be done at any age!
As with all holistic therapies, however, not everyone will respond equally well to acupuncture. If it works for you, keep going with it. If not, try something else to support your rehab program.
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