Acupuncture

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (abbreviated: NHLBI) does not recommend acupuncture to treat asthma.1

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is done by inserting thin metal needles into the skin at various points on the body. The acupuncturist manipulates (turns) the needles.2 Most people feel little or no pain.3 It has been used for more than 2000 years as part of traditional Chinese medicine.3

Accupressure and laser acupuncture are other methods of stimulation that are sometimes used instead of needles.4

Acupuncture is used to treat a wide range of conditions. Studies have found that it is effective for:3

  • Treating nausea in people undergoing chemotherapy.
  • Relieving pain and improving function for people with arthritis in the knee.
  • Treating lower back pain.
  • Treating post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Improve pregnancy rates after certain fertility treatments

A little over 1% of people in the United States use acupuncture.3

What do studies say about acupuncture for asthma?

Review paper from 2004. The NHLBI recommendation against acupuncture is based in part on the results from 12 studies were compared in one paper.4 All the studies were small, ranging from 17 to 66 participants. In total, data from 350 people were available. All the studies were randomized, which means that participants were randomly assigned to a treatment group. Randomized studies usually produce better information than non-randomized studies. All of the studies compared acupuncture with a fake (sham) treatment. The trials used different kinds of sham treatments, including acupuncture points not meant to treat asthma or not considered acupuncture points.

Nine trials used needle acupuncture and three used laser acupuncture. Each trial stimulated different points on the body, which makes it hard to compare the treatments. Another problem with the studies is that some of the “fake treatment” points may actually have been active treatment points.

Lung function did not improve in any of the trials. Two studies showed that people used less medication after acupuncture. In the other trials, there was no difference or medication usage was not studied. Each study measured change in symptoms differently. This makes it hard to compare the results. However, there was generally no difference in symptoms after acupuncture or sham treatment.

Newer trials. There have been a few more studies of acupuncture since 2004. One study was done in children and teens.5 It showed that people were less anxious and had more consistent peak flow measurements after acupuncture. Overall lung function and quality of life were no better after acupuncture.

In another study, 122 children had acupuncture or sham treatment 10 times over three months.6 While they were getting the treatments, people in both groups had fewer asthma symptoms and used less medication. The improvements did not last once the treatments were finished.

One study of 45 adults showed that acupuncture improved quality of life, but not lung function.7

Why does acupuncture make me feel better?

Studies generally indicate that acupuncture does not work for asthma. However, sometimes just getting treated can make you feel better.

One study compared an albuterol inhaler, a placebo (fake treatment) inhaler, sham acupuncture, and no intervention.8 People with asthma did spirometry on 12 different days. Each time, they were given a different treatment, to see if their lung function improved. The researchers measured FEV1, which is the amount of air you can forcefully exhale in one second. They also asked patients to rate their own improvement in lung function before and after treatment.

The only treatment that should have worked was albuterol. FEV1 was much better after albuterol than the other three “interventions.” However, as many patients reported feeling better after the placebo inhaler and sham acupuncture as after albuterol.

This interesting study showed that the “placebo effect” can be meaningful. However, it is important to remember that only albuterol actually improved lung function. Acupuncture should not be used in place of medical care for worsening asthma symptoms.

Written by: Sarah O'Brien | Last Reviewed: May 2016.
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