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Acupuncture is an effective treatment for tendonitis

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Acupuncture is stellar at treating any type of tendon issue and drastically reducing the amount of healing time required. Tendonitis is an inflammation of the tendon or cord of fibrous tissue that attaches a muscle to a bone. It is often accompanied by tenosynovitis, which is an inflammation of the lining of the tendon sheath. Tendons are white tissue and lack or have very little blood flow to the area which is why healing can take a long time. Oftentimes months and sometimes years. Contrast that to a muscle which is very red and full of oxegyn and you can see why muscle and soft tissue heal so much quicker.

The symptoms of these conditions are pain and tenderness at or near a joint, especially upon movement of the joint; possible swelling over the area; and in some cases numbness and tingling. Stiffness, along with the pain can restrict movement of the joint involved. The most frequently affected joints are the shoulder, elbow (tennis elbow), wrist/hand and heel (Achilles tendonitis).

The exact cause of the inflammation is often unknown, but may result from repeated trauma, excessive strain or overuse of the tendon. For instance, irregular or too-strenuous exercise along with not warming up properly can make one prone to tendonitis.

Repetitive strain injuries in the arm are most often related to the type of work that a person does-hair dressers, musicians, car mechanics, massage therapists, and anyone who works for long, uninterrupted hours on a computer are predisposed to this type of overuse injury.

These causes can lead to what’s called “local qi and blood congestion in the channels” according to traditional Chinese medicine which includes acupuncture and Chinese herbs. Not only will acupuncture help decrease the pain, but will also enhance your body’s own healing ability. Needling the affected area will bring in more blood flow and oxygen and help the tissue recover. Research shows that overall, acupuncture can be helpful to reduce tendonitis pain and increase circulation to/around a tendon. Acupuncture needles are inserted at or very near to the source of the pain. This addresses the local symptoms by improving the circulation of qi and blood in the affected area.

Chinese herbs can reduce the inflammation in soft tissues and strengthen the tendons. In TCM (traditional Chinese medicine), one of the functions of the liver is to control and moisten the tendons and ligaments. Therefore, healthy liver function is expressed in ease of movement. Acupuncture and herbs for tendonitis usually involve treating the liver also.

People with severe tendonitis may have to stop work that aggravates the condition, at least for a while. Less severe cases can be treated quite successfully with acupuncture and kept from becoming debilitating. Both acupuncture and Chinese herbs are extremely effective in treating tendinitis. Acupuncture, in particular, is the treatment of choice, giving excellent results in both acute and chronic cases. Acute cases can often be resolved in a few treatments. However, many people with this problem present with very chronic conditions. These cases can be treated with good results too, but the more long-standing the condition, the longer it will take to resolve.

Tendonitis is a common painful inflammatory condition of tendons. It usually develops as a result of repetitive movements of the joint involved, and becomes more common as we age and our tissues become less flexible. Once tendonitis sets in, it can take a long time to heal, especially if you cannot avoid the repetitive movement that is contributing to the problem. Depending on the severity of the inflammation and your activity level, tendonitis can persist for months and months, so it’s important that you start treating it as soon as possible after symptoms begin.

In 1997, the National Institutes of Health reported that acupuncture may be an effective therapy for tennis elbow. In addition, two studies examining the effect of acupuncture on this and other types of Tendonitis have found that acupuncture provides better pain relief than placebo. Research shows that acupuncture brought up blood volume and oxygen saturation levels to injured tendons. The National Institutes of Health has reported that acupuncture may help treat tennis elbow.

Acupuncturists report that patients with Tendonitis frequently exhibit a primary deficiency in the liver meridian, with a relative excess in the gallbladder meridian. In addition to needling treatment on the liver meridian and the supporting kidney meridian, treatments using moxibustion (a technique in which the herb mugwort is burned over specific acupuncture points) may also be included. Needling and/or moxibustion may also be directly applied to painful areas and related sore points.

Tendonitis (also spelled tendinitis) is an inflammation of a tendon. Generally tendonitis is referred to by the body part involved, such as Achillies tendonitis (inflammation of the Achilles tendon), or patellar tendonitis (jumper’s knee; inflammation of the patellar tendon). Chronic overuse of tendons leads to microscopic tears within the collagen matrix, which gradually weakens the tissue. Tendonitis can also be associated with systemic inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.

One of the great strengths of Chinese medicine is that successful treatment does not depend on establishing exactly what the pattern of causation is, but in correctly identifying how the flow of the body’s energies have been affected and whether this is a local problem or one which is a manifestation of a more systemic pattern. In cases of swelling and inflammation treatment often involves both the local insertion of needles and also systemic treatment to help the whole body to support the healing process.

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  • Is there a role for acupuncture in the treatment of tendinopathy?


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Education and practice

Is there a role for acupuncture in the treatment of tendinopathy?

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  1. Bradley Stephen Neal 1 ,
  2. Jennie Longbottom 2
  1. 1Pure Sports Medicine, London, UK
  2. 2Parks Therapy Centre, Cambridge, UK
  1. Correspondence to Bradley Stephen Neal, Pure Sports Medicine, Canary Wharf, London E14 4QT, England; brad.nealatpuresportsmed.com

Abstract

Tendinopathy is a debilitating condition in athletic and sedentary populations for which a gold standard treatment strategy does not yet exist. While the pathophysiology of tendinopathy is well understood, a debate remains as to the nature of the pain mechanism in tendinopathy which makes treatment selection challenging. This clinical discussion presents evidence to suggest that acupuncture may have a role in the treatment of tendinopathy, through the facilitation of tendon blood flow and fibroblastic activity, making recommendations for further research.

  • Acupuncture
  • Sports Medicine

http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/acupmed-2012-010208

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    • Acupuncture
    • Sports Medicine

    Introduction

    Tendinopathy is a clinical descriptor for pain and pathology in and around tendons. 1 The term developed as a replacement for the historically used but now defunct ‘tendinitis’, as several authors describe the histological examination of tendinopathy as consistently showing either minimal or absent inflammatory markers. 1–3 Tendon problems lead to significant morbidity in athletic and sedentary populations and may last for several months despite what is considered appropriate treatment. 2 , 3 Conservative strategies that are common within current medical practice include pharmacological intervention, eccentric exercise, extracorporeal shockwave treatment and injection treatment, all of which are supported by promising but not definitive evidence from randomised controlled trials. 1 , 4 The plethora of management strategies described in the literature demonstrate that gold standard treatment for tendinopathy remains under debate and the lack of consensus regarding the pathophysiology and pain mechanism in tendinopathy may be responsible. 4

    With best practice for the management of tendinopathy currently unclear, alternative methods of treatment are continually being explored. There is a growing acceptance towards acupuncture as a treatment for musculoskeletal conditions such as low back pain, arthritis and myofascial pain relief, among clinicians and patients alike in the Western world. 5 Within tendinopathy, a multitude of injections appear to provide similar outcomes, thus some experts are starting to question whether it is the substance or the needle that provides the therapeutic effect. 6 Acupuncture is already known to induce analgesia via (or through) several pain mechanisms. The insertion of an acupuncture needle stimulates A-delta and C fibres and can result in the release of several neuropeptides involved in pain modulation and local vasodilation such as ‘calcitonin gene related peptide’ (CGRP) and substance P. 7 , 8 The early work of Janzen and colleagues is testament to the historic belief that acupuncture may have the potential to optimise the body’s own natural healing response via a homeostatic mechanism. 9 Acupuncture has shown the potential to increase local blood flow within a target tissue and affect fibroblast migration through myofascial collagen manipulation, 10 , 11 both of which could prove key in attempting to reverse tendinopathic change.

    Tendinopathy pathophysiology and pain mechanism

    With regards to the pathophysiology of tendinopathy, the current evidence base is uniform in describing a failed healing response. 3 , 12 Specifically, a disruption of the hierarchical structure of collagen fibres is seen, with a significant increase in the immature type III collagen, due to the haphazard proliferation of tenocyte cells. 12 There is a recurrent suggestion that apoptosis occurs at an accelerated rate within tendinopathy, leading to an imbalance in tendon remodelling. 13 , 14 The result is an increase in non-collagenous matrix within the tendon, ultimately weakening the structure. 14 , 15

    The nature of the pain mechanism associated with tendinopathy is the main area of debate within the literature. Neovascularisation is a common feature of tendinopathy and a majority of authors indicate that neovessels are likely to be involved in tendinopathic pain. 2 , 16 , 17 An increase in the neurotransmitter glutamate (consistently seen in painful tendons) is thought to further drive the pain process 2 , 3 and this has lead to an increased interest in the role of the nervous system within the tendinopathic pain process. However, the counterargument is that neovascularisation may not be involved in tendon pain. Importantly, morphologically normal tendons can be painful and pathological tendons can be pain free prior to rupture. 1

    We would advocate the application of the pathology continuum (See figure 1 ) proposed by Cook and Purdham, 14 which describes classifying tendinopathy into three distinct stages (reactive, dysrepair and degenerative). There are important clinical differences between the phases that will alter treatment selection if applied correctly. Reactive tendinopathy should demonstrate an alteration of the tendon matrix due to increased water content, with only minimal longitudinal collagen separation (if at all), all of which is a short-term homogenous thickening resultant from acute overload (see figure 2 ). As a contrast, dysrepair/degenerative tendinopathy differs significantly, with apoptosis, tenocyte exhaustion, collagen separation and neovascular in-growth all being present (See figure 3 ). The use of ultrasound scanning is recommended as a way of clinically differentiating between the phases, with neovessels and a hyperechoic appearance of collagen fibres being markers of degenerative pathology. 14

    Figure 1
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    Figure 1

    The tendinopathy pathology continuum as described by Cook and Purdham. 14

    Figure 2
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    Figure 2

    A real-time ultrasound image depicting an enlarged patella tendon, often seen within reactive tendinopathy.

    Figure 3
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    Figure 3

    A real-time ultrasound image using colour Doppler technology, depicting a degenerative patella tendon with neovessel encroachment, penetrating the ventral aspect of the tendon, from the Hoffa’s fat pad.

    Evidence for the use of acupuncture in the conservative management of tendinopathy is currently limited. A recent review by Pfefer and colleagues 18 identified short-term analgesia from acupuncture in the management of tendinopathy, but could not provide enough evidence to support or refute the implementation of acupuncture treatment. This is echoed by the reviews conducted by Trinh et al 19 and Green et al, 20 which both identified short-term analgesia from acupuncture in the management of lateral epicondylar elbow pain. To highlight the dearth of evidence surrounding this area, only four studies met the inclusion criteria for the review of Green et al in 2002. 20

    Angiogenesis

    A healthy tendon requires a balance between cell proliferation and cell death. It is thought that tendon hypovascularity and reduced oxygen supply, necessary to drive collagen production, is the precursor for the disruption of this balance. 21 Angiogenesis (the growth of new blood vessels) is directly linked to a tendon’s capability to heal 22 and thus it is thought that the hypoxic environment within tendinopathy is what triggers excessive apoptosis. 21 It has suggested that neovascularisation as a process is a biological attempt to provide oxygen to a healing process that is in disarray but recent evidence suggests that as the vessels seem to grow from the ventral aspect of the tendon (from the Kager’s fat pad in the Achilles tendon as an example), they do not in fact assist with improving tendon vascularity. 16 Because of this, treatments that promote tendon blood flow are starting to be explored.

    The development of treatments such as induced hyperthermia, ‘platelet rich plasma’ and ‘autologous blood’ injections, along with Alfredson’s surgical scraping 16 all highlight an attempt to interfere with neovascularisation and stimulate angiogenesis, to provide an optimal environment for tendon healing. 23 As an example, James and colleagues 24 analysed the efficacy of autologous blood injection combined with dry needling in patella tendinopathy. A statistically significant improvement in subjective pain and function compared to baseline was identified following intervention, with a majority (22 out of 24) of patella tendons demonstrating a reduction of residual thickness on ultrasound. Acupuncture is known to induce local vasodilation within human tissue 8 and there is new evidence that acupuncture may be able to facilitate tendon blood flow and thus have a role in the treatment of tendinopathy.

    Acupuncture and angiogenesis

    A recent study by Kubo and colleagues 10 investigated the effects of acupuncture and heating on total blood volume and oxygen saturation in healthy human Achilles tendons. A single needle was inserted into the mid portion of the Achilles, penetrating the paratenon (the fascial interspace between a tendon and it’s sheath). During treatment, the needle was stimulated in a vertical plane (pecking). They identified a significant increase in total blood volume and oxygen saturation versus baseline for both treatment modalities, with no significant differences between the groups. However, during the 30 min recovery phase (after needle removal) total blood volume continued to increase and oxygen saturation was maintained in the acupuncture group, whereas both figures dropped swiftly in the heating group. Both of these differences were statistically significant. We theorise that the likely mechanism for the significantly superior blood flow with acupuncture is vasodilation induced by CGRP via the manipulation of sensory nerve endings. This result suggests that acupuncture may be able to contribute to tendon repair, but further research is required, particularly in tendinopathic tendons that may respond differently to healthy tendons. 10

    Support for the above findings is seen in an earlier study conducted by Sandberg and colleagues, 25 who investigated the effects of acupuncture on skin and muscular blood flow. They identified a significant increase in blood flow within the tibialis anterior muscle versus baseline (needling via ST36), with deep needle insertion superior to superficial needling. Stimulating the needle in a vertical plane further increased blood flow. We again suggest that vasodilation as a result of CGRP release is likely to responsible for the results identified. Additional support can be found among animal research, with a study by Shinbara and colleagues, 26 identifying increased muscular blood flow in a rat muscle model when penetrated by an acupuncture needle. Warden 27 suggests that with careful selection and rigorous methodology, it is possible to draw appropriate conclusions regarding human tissue from animal research. Similar to previous results, this study found that effects on blood flow were maintained throughout a 60 min recovery period following treatment. 26

    Fibroblast migration via fascial manipulation

    Along with having the potential to facilitate increased tendon blood flow, acupuncture has also been shown to stimulate fibroblastic activity when collagen is wound around an acupuncture needle. Langevin and colleagues 11 identified significantly increased fibroblastic activity in a mouse model with rotational needle manipulation, supporting the results from their previous work. This effect is attributed to a potential increase in the mechanical signalling through the extracellular matrix, thus leading to fibroblast migration. 28 This is supported by the more recent work of Lee and colleagues, 29 who identified significantly improved tissue healing in a mouse burn model when compared with a conventional dressing. They identified significantly greater basic fibroblast growth factor (bfGf) in the acupuncture group, with an additional reduction in leukocyte infiltration within the wound, suggesting an efficient inflammatory process. In our opinion, this has the potential to assist with reversing the apoptosis phenomenon consistently seen in tendinopathy, 13 , 14 although further research in healthy and pathological human tendon tissue would be required to further support this theory.

    Summary

    Regardless of the management strategy in question, further research is required in all aspects of tendinopathy treatment. As a result of the current lack of consensus seen among the evidence base, any addition to the dearth of evidence can only be positive. Further research into the source of pain in tendinopathy would be highly beneficial but at present the majority of literature suggests that neovascularisation is likely to be the primary cause, as there are several examples of clinical improvements coinciding with a decrease in neovascularisation. We would advocate the pathology model, 14 to allow clinicians to diagnose and also classify tendinopathy. This differentiation should (in time) allow for more appropriate treatment selection as the evidence base increases.

    We would suggest that there is a small but high quality contingent of evidence supporting the theory that acupuncture may be able to influence tendon healing by increasing blood flow via local vasodilation and increasing collagen proliferation. These effects are most likely a result of an increased release of the neuropeptide CGRP from sensory nerve endings and an increase in mechanical signalling through the extracellular matrix respectively. Further research in healthy and pathological human tendons is indicated, which may in time identify that acupuncture is effective in the management of tendinopathy through the mechanics proposed within this discussion.

    Acknowledgments

    The authors would like to express their thanks to Dr Christian Barton for his assistance in the final preparations of this manuscript.

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    View Abstract

    Footnotes

    • Contributors BSN originally wrote a piece on this topic for an MSc submission in 2010. This has now been edited and modified with the assistance of JL, who provided significant portions of the acupuncture literature and application. Dr Christian Barton assisted with the final drafting of the manuscript but has not been listed as an author.

    • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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