Lateral epicondylitis (LE) is a challenging condition for clinicians, and research has yet not proven the superiority of one specific treatment approach. However, manual therapy (elbow mobilization) in addition to eccentric exercise has been found to be superior to exercise alone. As well, acupuncture is effective in short-term pain relief when compared with sham treatment, but there is little knowledge on the comparative effectiveness of manual therapy and acupuncture treatment of LE in terms of pain relief. The primary objective of this pilot trial was to assess the feasibility (retention and adherence rates) of performing a randomized controlled trial (RCT) to explore the clinical effectiveness of acupuncture and manual therapy treatment of LE.
This pilot trial took place in an outpatient interdisciplinary institute of sports medicine and rehabilitation in Oslo, Norway. Thirty-six adults with clinically diagnosed LE were randomly allocated into one of three groups: eccentric exercise alone, eccentric exercise plus acupuncture, or eccentric exercise plus manual therapy for a 12-week treatment period. Primary outcomes were patient retention and adherence rates. Secondary outcomes included patient-reported pain (NRS), level of disability (Quick-DASH), and participant’s satisfaction with treatment and global perceived effect.
Nine (69%) patients in the acupuncture group completed the 1-year follow-up, compared to eight (67%) in the manual therapy group and five (45%) in exercise alone. Our goal was to demonstrate a retention rate above 80% to avoid serious threats to validity, but the result was lower than expected. The majority of participants (64%) in both treatment groups received only three-treatment sessions; the reasons included non-attendance or recovery from pain. Secondary outcomes support the rationale for conduction of an RCT. There were no adverse advents related to study participation.
Based on differences in pain relief between groups, patient retention, and adherence rates, an RCT seems to be feasible to assess treatment effectiveness more precisely. In a future definitive trial, greater dropout may be reduced by maintaining contact with the participants in the exercise alone group throughout the intervention, and objective assessments might be considered.
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