News & Perspectives

Acupuncture Eases Painful Tennis Elbow
What the Study Showed

Traditional Chinese acupuncture is an effective therapy for reducing pain and improving function in an arm afflicted with a common inflammatory condition called tennis elbow. That was the finding of a randomized, controlled trial that studied 45 adults with this painful elbow ailment, medically known as chronic lateral epicondylitis.

In this German study, investigators compared "sham" (fake) acupuncture treatments to traditional acupuncture, in which needle insertion points are selected and stimulated with great precision based on millennia of experience and study. While the sham treatments helped, they were not nearly as effective as the real thing. The results were published in 2002 in the peer-reviewed journal Rheumatology.

How It Was Done

Investigators at Hanover Medical School in Germany advertised for study subjects, and ultimately selected 45 individuals with a well-established diagnosis of tennis elbow.

The participants were randomly placed in either an experimental group (23 subjects) that got real acupuncture, or a control group (22 subjects) that received sham acupuncture. Everyone underwent two treatments a week for 10 weeks; six needles were used in each session. In the group receiving real acupuncture, needles were inserted into points long recommended by traditional practitioners of acupuncture; in the sham group, needles were inserted somewhat randomly but always at least two inches away from time-tested points.

Using established measures of pain intensity, disability, and maximal strength, investigators recorded changes in both groups, examining each individual before acupuncture sessions began, and then at two weeks and two months after treatments ceased.

In the end, after treatment, both groups experienced less intense pain and better function and strength in their arm. But results were more pronounced and immediate for those who received the real acupuncture.

Why It's Important

Most cases of tennis elbow improve with conservative, mainstay medical treatments--including rest, topical medications, steroid injections, and local anesthetics. But ultimately, when the patient returns to work or regular exercise, the pain often flares up again.

The German study shows that traditional acupuncture can effectively relieve this persistent and often very painful problem. To date, only two other controlled trials have examined needle acupuncture for tennis elbow.

In summary, people who look to acupuncture to ease their tennis elbow can be assured that as long as they undergo treatment with a professional acupuncturist, skilled in accepted and specific acupuncture points, the pain should become less intense and the ailing arm should function better.

Source: Fink M, Wolkenstein E, Karst, Gehrke A. Acupuncture in chronic epicondylitis: a randomized controlled trial. Rheumatology. 2002;41:205-209.

Date Published: 06/30/2003
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