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Arthritis responds to weather, acupuncture

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SAN ANTONIO, Oct 19, 2004 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- U.S. researchers report arthritic joints really do get worse depending upon the weather, and traditional Chinese acupuncture can be an effective treatment for the condition.

Researchers told attendees at the American College of Rheumatology's annual meeting they have compiled valid data indicating changes in temperature or atmospheric pressure can cause increases in pain in joints.

People commonly claim the weather affects their joints, but up to now scientific studies have suffered from faulty methodology and have not previously produced scientifically accepted evidence for this condition.

"People have such strong convictions about influences of the weather on arthritis that studies of this question can suffer from biases on either side," said Dr. Timothy E. McAlindon, associate professor of medicine and chief of the division of rheumatology at Tufts-New England Medical Center in Boston.

McAlindon said he and colleagues may have found two, seemingly unrelated batches of data that overcomes the personal bias. One study involved patients enrolled in the Online Glucosamine Trial -- a large Internet study of an over-the-counter arthritis treatment. The other was extensive weather data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

He said because the online study collected pain data without reference to weather conditions, and it was collected from locations all over the United States, its results could be viewed essentially without concern for personal bias. The glucosamine study tracked 205 patients and weather data could be correlated with 186 of their reports.

McAlindon found patients experienced more joint pain when the temperature drops and when barometric pressure increases. Exactly why those conditions result in pain is still cloudy, he said, but it is well accepted that barometric pressure can have physiological effects. He cited SCUBA divers' reactions to changes in pressure as an example of that phenomenon.

"Increases in barometric pressure usually indicate fair weather," noted Dr. Joseph Flood, clinical assistant professor of medicine at Ohio State University in Columbus. "It is counterintuitive that increases in barometric pressure would result in an increase of pain."

Flood agreed, however, the studies show "there is a relationship between weather and pain. There's lots of interesting information that comes under the umbrella of rheumatology."

In a separate presentation, researchers found traditional Chinese acupuncture -- in which a series of fine needles are inserted in the body to relieve pain -- proved better at treating arthritis than simply educating people about knee pain, and better than a "sham acupuncture" procedure as well.

"These results allow us to conclude that traditional Chinese acupuncture is an effective intervention for the relief of pain and improvement of function in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee," said Dr. Marc Hochberg, professor of medicine and head of rheumatology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.

Hochberg's team studied 570 patients who, despite taking medication for their arthritis, were still in pain. They were divided into three groups:

-- those who received traditional acupuncture;

-- those who received a fake acupuncture procedure, in which the needles were taped to the skin but not inserted, and

-- those who received educational materials on dealing with arthritis and associated pain.

The study was funded by the National Institutes Health National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Hochberg said.

Both the sham treatment and the actual Chinese acupuncture were significantly better than educational intervention, he noted.

Patients began feeling significantly better as early as eight weeks into the study, and the improvement continued during the 26-week study. The patients eventually received 23 acupuncture treatments.

Hochberg said patients on acupuncture improved in areas of pain, ability to function normally, and in their overall assessment of their condition as determined with standard testing.

"I think that these sorts of studies will increase interest in acupuncture and other modalities of treatment," said Dr. Joseph Flood, clinical assistant professor of medicine at Ohio State University. "I think we will need more studies before we see how it will fit into the clinical treatment of people with osteoarthritis."


Ed Susman covers medical issues for UPI Science News. E-mail

Copyright 2004 by United Press International.


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