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How Effective is Traditional Chinese Medicine for Knee Osteoarthritis?

Alternative therapies like Traditional Chinese medicine have long been used for chronic conditions like knee arthritis. A recent overview of ten systematic reviews evaluated the safety and efficacy of using Traditional Chinese medicine for knee osteoarthritis treatment.

Our long-standing concepts regarding most, if not all of the scientific disciplines are primarily Western-centric.  The adoption of the scientific method where hypotheses are systematically tested and validated is the foundation of how we explain the world around us. This is important in medicine, where we must necessarily employ the most effective methods of maintaining health without any compromise to patient safety.

Recently, scientists have been testing traditional Chinese medicine for safety and effectiveness. Of course, civilizations outside the Western sphere have their own established beliefs pertaining to health care; their relative success throughout the centuries may also serve as a validation as to how effective these practices are.  Traditional Chinese medicine TCM is an example of this, where ailments are treated using methods quite different from what we are accustomed to in the West.

The evolution of a global society has ironically opened the doors for a re-evaluation of these practices. Where they were once shunned as ineffective or quackery, clinicians now accept that there may be potential value in alternative therapies and are looking at how to integrate these into existing care.

An example of this is in knee osteoarthritis treatment. The Osteoarthritis Research Society International (OARSI) guidelines recommend using both western techniques such as weight management or surgery and Traditional Chinese Medicine techniques like acupuncture, herbal medicines, moxibustion (suction cupping), herbal baths, and Tai Chi.

To ascertain the efficacy and safety of these interventions, clinicians from the Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine undertook a systematic review of the available literature.  Ten reviews, which included information from over 3,000 existing published studies on the use of Traditional Chinese Medicine as knee osteoarthritis treatment were analyzed and presented in the December 2017 edition of PLoS Journal.

The systematic reviews confirm the value and benefits of traditional Chinese medicine, particularly in the alleviation of pain and mitigating disability. However, the authors also point out inconsistencies and inadequacies in many of the studies and they conclude that more rigorous methodologies should be employed to truly validate the safety and efficacy of these treatment regimens, especially in any further investigations.

Using the accepted scientific method to evaluate the effectiveness of traditional Chinese medicine has confirmed the value of these techniques in knee osteoarthritis treatment. Although more research is required, the available literature demonstrates that these methods are safe and effective.  By doing this, we can truly get the best of both worlds for the benefit of our patients.

Written by Jay Martin, M.D.

Reference: Wang, et al. “Traditional Chinese medicine for knee osteoarthritis:  An overview of systematic review. PLoS ONE 12 (12): e0189864.  https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0189864.

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