Ask the Doctors: Prolotherapy may relieve arthritis pain

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Q: I'm a 66-year-old man whose right knee really hurts from arthritis. My sister keeps talking about something called prolotherapy. What is it, and can it help?

A: Prolotherapy is an injection-based approach to treating pain in the soft tissues of the joint. Specifically, a small amount of a liquid irritant is introduced at the site where a tendon or ligament attaches to the bone. The idea is that the irritant will set off a localized inflammation reaction, which will then trigger the release of growth factors that promote the healing of soft tissues.

The roots of prolotherapy date back to the ancient Greeks, who believed that deliberately causing inflammation in a certain area of the body could stimulate the tissues to repair themselves. In the 1930s and 1940s, several physicians expanded on the concept. They experimented with various solutions and developed techniques — sometimes referred to as "needle surgery" — to target connective tissue in the joints.

Today, prolotherapy injections typically consist of sugar- or salt-based solutions to which a local anesthetic, such as lidocaine, is added. Patients seek the treatment to help with joint pain and stiffness resulting from injury, overuse or inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and degenerative disc disease. Areas of the body targeted by the practice include the knees, back, hips, ankles, shoulders and hands.

Treatment protocols usually consist of a series of three to eight injections given over weeks or months, depending on the specific case. The injections can be moderately painful, and patients often use Tylenol or stronger medications to manage localized aches and tenderness. Patients are advised to limit activity for several days after each injection, and they may be asked to supplement the therapy with specific exercises that focus on range of motion.

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Since creating inflammation is the point of prolotherapy, the use of NSAIDs, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, to address the resulting pain and discomfort is not recommended. Possible side effects of the procedure include bleeding, bruising or swelling at the injection site. These can last for a week or more. Allergic reactions to the injected solution, infection and nerve damage are possible, but rare.

Does prolotherapy work? In some case studies, patients report improvement in pain and strength in the affected areas. But studies of the treatment have yielded mixed results. Some have argued that the studies showing benefit have been too small and not scientifically rigorous. The one area of agreement appears to be the need for large and scientifically rigorous studies.

Although prolotherapy is gaining in popularity, the National Institutes of Health identify it as a complementary and alternative medical treatment. And since it's considered an experimental therapy, many insurance companies won't cover it. Costs can range from $400 to $1,000 per treatment, depending on the provider.

As with all alternative therapies, we think it's wise for you to check with your doctor to see whether prolotherapy may be helpful for you.

Eve Glazier, M.D., MBA, is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Elizabeth Ko, M.D., is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10880 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1450, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.


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