A new report looking at the effectiveness of complementary therapies commonly used to alleviate the symptoms of arthritis and other musculoskeletal conditions has concluded that there is still little scientific evidence to support their use.

Medical research charity Arthritis UK assessed results from randomised clinical trials to investigate the safety and effectiveness of a range of non-conventional therapies for rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, and low back pain, given that around a quarter of the UK population is using complementary treatments overall.

In the first instance, they found that many of the 25 therapies included have not been actually been through a clinical trial or may have only been evaluated in a single study, and the evidence that is available paints a very mixed picture of their effectiveness, with some only working in certain conditions.

Those therapies found to be most effective were: acupuncture for osteoarthritis, low back pain and fibromyalgia; massage for fibromyalgia and low back pain; Tai Chi for osteoarthritis; and Yoga for back pain.

But there was "very little evidence" to support the use other commonly-used approaches such as copper and magnetic therapy, the charity said.

Furthermore, very little research has been conducted for therapies claiming to alleviate the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, and only a little evidence suggested biofeedback, relaxation therapy and Tai Chi are effective, each scoring 2 out of a maximum of 5 on a scale of evidence on effectiveness.

£450m a year

Given that around a £450 million is thought to be spent on complementary medicine every year, the report has prompted calls that such therapies be better evaluated to ensure value for money.

And better evidence of safety and efficacy is particularly essential with the rise of personal budgets in the NHS, that allow patients to purchase their own treatments.

Terry Cullen, who was until recently chairman of the British Complementary Medicine Association (BCMA), said the study's findings "highlight the woeful lack of research into the value of different therapy options in respect of their effectiveness in offsetting the distress caused by the many complaints we suffer during our lives".

"From a BCMA viewpoint the frustration is that there is always insufficient funding available to carry out extensive and meaningful trials," he stressed.