Shaftesbury Clinic Star of Conditions

Knee Pain – Condition Resources

Important to know: Chronic health conditions should be addressed under direct medical supervision of your GP or consultant, and acupuncture would be an adjunct or complement to usual care – we advise that you let you doctor know when you use this approach.

Also possibly of interest: Our Arthritis page.

Chronic Pain in General

“Acupuncture is effective for the treatment of chronic musculoskeletal, headache, and osteoarthritis pain. Treatment effects of acupuncture persist over time and cannot be explained solely in terms of placebo effects. Referral for a course of acupuncture treatment is a reasonable option for a patient with chronic pain”. (Vickers et al, 2018: large chronic pain review of high quality RCTs updating a previous meta-analysis; 39 trials, n=20827; conditions addressed chronic headache, back/neck pain and osteoarthritis)

Another recent overview (Yin et al, 2017) confirms that there is increasing evidence for acupuncture  as an effective, safe, and cost-effective intervention in chronic low back, neck, shoulder, and knee pain, as well as headaches.

The NHS body in charge of which treatments should be used in particular conditions recommends acupuncture for chronic pain:  The NICE Scenario Management guidelines (2021) for chronic pain state: “consider a course of acupuncture or dry needling, within a traditional Chinese or Western acupuncture system”

Overall, a large systematic review has found acupuncture a cost effective intervention for several painful conditions (Ambrósio et al, 2012).

Knee pain

Knee pain was included in large chronic pain review of RCTs updating a previous meta-analysis (Vickers et al, 2018; 39 trials, n=20827) acupuncture showed a significant clinical superiority over usual care and a smaller advantage over sham.

A systematic review and meta-analysis of 17 trials, showed significant benefits whereby in patients in study groups having received acupuncture, this was associated with significantly reduced chronic knee pain 12 weeks (Zhang et al, 2017).  Specifically comparing treatments including acupuncture in osteoarthritic knee pain, Corbett et al’s (2013, n=9709) systematic review and network meta-analysis found that acupuncture could be considered as one of the more effective physical treatments for alleviating osteoarthritis knee pain in the short-term: Acupuncture was ranked second out of 21 physical treatments in this study.  The team also clarified that further research is also warranted in this area, due to the quality of the research available in some treatment areas across the studies.


Osteoarthritis of the knee is a chronic degenerative disease, with symptoms of pain, stiffness, swelling and dysfunction.  OA of the knee is the most prevalent pain- and disability inducing condition in adults over 50 years old (Araya-Quintanilla et al. 2022).

An overview of 15 systematic reviews of pain relief in patients with osteoarthritis knee by Araya-Quintanilla et al. (2022) found that in the short term, acupuncture had a moderate positive impact on both pain intensity; and knee function, compared to the control groups. The evidence was rated as low to very low quality according to GRADE ratings.

The systematic review of eleven RCTs with meta-analysis by Tian et al. (2021) found that acupuncture had a positive effect on reducing pain and improving functional activities in patients with knee osteoarthritis. However, there was no significant effect on relieving stiffness or improving the quality of life (mental or physical health) compared to sham acupuncture. The findings suggest that acupuncture can be recommended as a beneficial alternative therapy for patients with chronic pain and knee OA, but further studies are needed to verify the effectiveness in function improvement. The results were confirmed by cumulative Z-curve analysis.

Liu, J., et al, 2022; In this multicentre RCT (n=625), patients were randomly assigned (1:1:1) to receive acupuncture at acupoints with Lower Pain Threshold (LPT); acupuncture at acupoints with Higher Pain Threshold (HPT); and no acupuncture (waiting-list group).  Measures of pain and symptoms (WOMAC) from baseline to 16 weeks; outcome measures of daily life impact of condition (SF-12 score); and active knee range of motion (ROM) were used as comparators. From baseline to 16 weeks, the effects of acupuncture at acupoints with lower versus higher PT were similar, as both were effective for patients with OA of the knee, “results confirmed the positive effects of acupuncture on pain, stiffness, physical function and quality of life of in patients” compared to the waiting list group. 

A further systematic review and meta-analysis is due as per the recent protocol in the BMJ (Lui, C.Y., et al; 2022).

Mechanisms of Action

Acupuncture stimulates the body to create its own natural painkilling substances, such as Beta Endorphins (β-Endorphin). In studies acupuncture has been shown to stimulate the production of natural painkillers called opioid-like peptides (OLPs), including β-Endorphin: For example, this was shown in an RCT in 90 patients with a range of painful disorders (Petti et al, 1998). The same study showed acupuncture also and enhanced the activity of immune cells (lymphocytes, natural killer cells and monocytes) that help fight infections and diseases (Petti et al, 1998).

About the research: It is worth noting that in research, randomised controlled studies (RCT) are the most reliable in terms of quality of evidence, with a systematic review or meta analysis of numerous studies being the best way of seeing the overall picture of the state of the evidence. Below we have a selection of the available research, which does include some larger RCTs, and reviews of the literature alongside smaller studies. The n= figure tells you how many people were participants in the study.


BAcC Osteoarthritis of the Knee Factsheet

Evidence Based Acupuncture – Factsheet on Chronic Pain


Knee References:

Araya-Quintanilla, F., Cuyúl-Vásquez, I. and Gutiérrez-Espinoza, H., 2022. Does acupuncture provide pain relief in patients with osteoarthritis knee? An overview of systematic reviews. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies29, pp.117-126.

Corbett, M.S., Rice, S.J.C., Madurasinghe, V., Slack, R., Fayter, D.A., Harden, M., Sutton, A.J., Macpherson, H. and Woolacott, N.F., 2013. Acupuncture and other physical treatments for the relief of pain due to osteoarthritis of the knee: network meta-analysis. Osteoarthritis and cartilage, 21(9), pp.1290-1298.

Liu, J., Li, Y., Li, L., Luo, X., Li, N., Yang, X., Zhang, H., Liu, Z., Kang, D., Luo, Y. and Liu, Y., 2022. Effects of acupuncture at acupoints with lower versus higher pain threshold for knee osteoarthritis: a multicenter randomized controlled trial. Chinese Medicine17(1), pp.1-12.

Liu, C.Y., Tu, J.F., Lee, M.S., Qi, L.Y., Yu, F.T., Yan, S.Y., Li, J.L., Lin, L.L., Hao, X.W., Su, X.T. and Yang, J.W., 2022. Is acupuncture effective for knee osteoarthritis? A protocol for a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ open12(1), p.e052270.

Petti, F.., Bangrazi, A., Liguori, A., Reale, G. and Ippoliti, F., 1998. Effects of acupuncture on immune response related to opioid-like peptides. Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine 18(1), pp.55-63.

Vickers, A.J., Vertosick, E.A., Lewith, G., MacPherson, H., Foster, N.E., Sherman, K.J., Irnich, D., Witt, C.M., Linde, K. and Acupuncture Trialists’ Collaboration, 2018. Acupuncture for chronic pain: update of an individual patient data meta-analysis. The Journal of Pain19(5), pp.455-474.

Tian, H., Huang, L., Sun, M., Xu, G., He, J., Zhou, Z., Huang, F., Liu, Y. and Liang, F., 2022. Acupuncture for knee osteoarthritis: A systematic review of randomized clinical trials with meta-analyses and trial sequential analyses. BioMed Research International2022.

Yin, C., Buchheit, T.E. and Park, J.J., 2017. Acupuncture for chronic pain: an update and critical overview. Current opinion in anaesthesiology30(5), pp.583-592.

Zhang, Q., Yue, J., Golianu, B., Sun, Z. and Lu, Y., 2017. Updated systematic review and meta-analysis of acupuncture for chronic knee pain. Acupuncture in Medicine, 35(6), pp.392-403.

General Chronic Pain References:

Ambrósio, E.M.M., Bloor, K. and MacPherson, H., 2012. Costs and consequences of acupuncture as a treatment for chronic pain: a systematic review of economic evaluations conducted alongside randomised controlled trials. Complementary therapies in medicine, 20(5), pp.364-374.

Vickers, A.J., Vertosick, E.A., Lewith, G., MacPherson, H., Foster, N.E., Sherman, K.J., Irnich, D., Witt, C.M., Linde, K. and Acupuncture Trialists’ Collaboration, 2018. Acupuncture for chronic pain: update of an individual patient data meta-analysis. The Journal of Pain, 19(5), pp.455-474.

Birch, S., Lee, M.S., Alraek, T. and Kim, T.H., 2018. Overview of treatment guidelines and clinical practical guidelines that recommend the use of acupuncture: a bibliometric analysis. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine24(8), pp.752-769.

NICE 2021 Chronic pain: Scenario: Management Last revised in April 2021

Yin, C., Buchheit, T.E. and Park, J.J., 2017. Acupuncture for chronic pain: an update and critical overview. Current opinion in anaesthesiology30(5), pp.583-592.

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