Acupuncture and an extract of turmeric—the spice that gives curry its kick—may both offer significant pain relief to some arthritis patients, two new studies suggest.
Reporting in the November issue of Arthritis & Rheumatism, a German team says a combination of acupuncture and conventional medicine can boost quality of life for patients suffering from osteoarthritis.
And in a second study in the same issue, American researchers say the ingestion of a special turmeric extract could help prevent or curb both acute and chronic rheumatoid arthritis.
The findings should be heartening to the roughly 40 percent of arthritis patients in the United States who say they've turned to some form of alternative medicine.
"If I had arthritis, I would be very excited about this," said Dr. Janet L. Funk, the lead author of the turmeric study and an assistant professor of physiological sciences at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
According to the Arthritis Foundation, nearly one in five Americans (46 million) suffers from one of the more than 100 various joint diseases that constitute arthritis. An additional 23 million have chronic joint pain that has yet to be formally diagnosed.
Osteoarthritis is caused by a progressive degeneration of bone cartilage and is the most common type of arthritis in the United States. Rheumatoid arthritis is an immunological disorder characterized by a painful inflammation of the lining of the joints.
In her study, Funk built on earlier research she had conducted with rats. Those efforts suggested that turmeric might prevent joint inflammation.
In her current work, she first broke down the specific contents of commonly sold turmeric dietary supplements.
In the lab, she and her colleagues then isolated a turmeric extract that was free of essential oils and structurally similar to that found in commercial varieties. The extract was based largely on curcuminoids—a compound they believed to be most protective against arthritic inflammation.
Funk's group administered the extract to female rats both before and after the onset of rheumatoid arthritis. They then tracked changes in the rodents' bone density and integrity.
The turmeric extract appeared to block inflammatory pathways associated with rheumatoid arthritis in rats at a particularly early point in the development of the disease. The extract had a beneficial impact if given three days after arthritis set in, but not if given eight days after disease onset.
Investigations in the laboratory revealed that turmeric stops a particular protein from launching an inflammatory "chain reaction" linked to swelling and pain. The expression of hundreds of genes normally involved in instigating bone destruction and swelling was also altered by the turmeric.
Funk stressed, however, that the findings are preliminary, and the extract needs to be tested in people.
"I feel an obligation to make clear that people should not run out to buy and consume turmeric powder," she cautioned. "First of all, a very small percent of the ground-up root that we buy in the grocery store is the protective part of the root, so it's not going to get you anywhere." In fact, the compound used in the study probably makes up only about 3 percent of the weight of current store-bought turmeric supplements, Funk said.
"That means that if this pans out in further studies, patients will be taking a purified extract, and this is all really exciting," she said. "But we still need conclusive proof that this extract is safe and efficacious."
In the second study, researchers led by Dr. Claudia M. Witt of Charite University Medical Center in Berlin spent three years tracking the treatment results of 3,500 male and female osteoarthritis patients suffering from either knee or hip pain.
For six months, all the participants were permitted to continue whatever conventional western medical treatments they had been undergoing prior to the onset of the treatment trials.
However, in addition, over 3,200 of the patients also received up to 15 sessions of needle-stimulation acupuncture during the first three months of the study. The remaining 310 patients received no acupuncture in the first three months. They were offered such treatment in the final three months of the study period, however.
All acupuncture sessions were administered by physicians who had received a minimum of 140 hours of certified training.
Symptom and pain questionnaires were completed at the onset of the study and at three months and six months of therapy.
Patients with chronic osteoarthritis pain who underwent a combination of routine medical care plus acupuncture demonstrated significant quality of life improvements, the researchers found. This included increased mobility and pain reduction above and beyond that experienced by patients who did not receive acupuncture.
For those who began their acupuncture treatments immediately, osteoarthritis improvement held steady three months after cessation of the sessions. For those patients who had begun acupuncture three months into the study period, comparable improvements occurred by the time they ended their sessions at the six-month mark.
The authors said acupuncture appeared to be a safe medical intervention with minor side effects observed in just over 5 percent of patients.
The study, one of the largest of its kind, demonstrated that acupuncture was a viable therapeutic option for people suffering from osteoarthritis, the German team said.
"I'm not surprised that people can be treated with acupuncture and get better," said Marshall H. Sager, a Bala Cynwyd, Pa.-based doctor of osteopathic medicine, acupuncturist, and past president of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture.
"Using acupuncture adjunctively with western medicine is very common, because if you can do both approaches, you're way ahead of the game," he said. "Some people are not amenable to medication, either because of allergenic effects or because they just don't want to consume artificial things. And so, this is a way to start the healing process by engaging and stimulating the body's own inherent ability to heal itself."
However, Sager cautioned that American patients who consider this alternative route should choose carefully when they seek out acupuncture care.
"'Medical acupuncture' is acupuncture as practiced by a physician, which is much different than acupuncture as practiced by non-physicians in the east, such as in China," he noted. "And I would most definitely recommend that patients in the west deal with a physician that's properly trained and a member of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture," Sager said.
By Alan Mozes, HealthDay Reporter, October 30, 2006