Does Acupuncture Help Ease Asthma?

What You Need to Know to Make a Good Decision

Woman receiving acupuncture
Acupuncture for asthma relief. Yuri Arcurs / Getty Images

If you or your child has asthma, you may be wondering if acupuncture holds any benefit in easing your asthma control or asthma symptoms. It may seem especially appealing to you, because unlike medication, acupuncture has few known side effects, right? Let's take a look:

According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine:

  • Acupuncture has been practiced for thousands of years in China and other Asian countries.
  • Acupuncture is currently under study for a wide range of conditions.
  • While not common, acupuncture can cause potentially serious side effects and should be delivered only by properly qualified practitioners.

What Is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture involves the stimulation of certain points on the body, often with needles or electrodes, to gain a therapeutic effect. This is one of the most common complementary procedures with millions of American participating each year for a number of different indications.

Will it Help?

A few small clinical trials show that acupuncture may help improve asthma symptoms. But to date, the research is inconclusive, since no one has conducted either a review or a randomized controlled trial -- the gold standards in proving a treatment successful.

The most recent Cochrane Collaboration Review, a not for profit group that issues information related to the usefulness of treatments for specific diseases, examining acupuncture for chronic asthma treatment found that while some improvements in asthma were seen, the results were not consistent.

The authors concluded "no recommendations" regarding acupuncture as a treatment for asthma could be made.

Additionally, several recent randomized controlled trials using placebo acupuncture treatments -- meaning the patients received sham acupuncture or no acupuncture -- found no difference in objective measures of asthma control like peak flow, exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, pulmonary function tests, or medication use when comparing patients receiving acupuncture to those receiving placebo.

A few studies have demonstrated decreased amounts of medication needed and improved quality of life, but overall studies have not demonstrated definitive benefit. As a result, there is currently bit evidence to support or recommendation that can be made to support acupuncture as an effective treatment for asthma.

What About Side Effects?

While there are relatively few adverse effects associated with acupuncture, that doesn't mean it's 100% safe. In a review of medical studies that looked at adverse effects of acupuncture over a 13-year period, the authors determined that acupuncture can generally be considered a "safe treatment," but that there were several important cases of adverse effects. Namely, pneumothorax was the most common mechanical injury following acupuncture, and hepatitis, an infection of the liver, the most common infectious complication. Additionally, the review mentioned three deaths in patients undergoing acupuncture treatment for asthma - one from bilateral pneumothorax, one from a blood stream infection, and one where acupuncture triggered a fatal asthma attack.

Other side effects are also reported such as fatigue following a treatment and this can be simply treated with rest. While it should not occur when performed correctly, bruising is a potential side effect you should be aware before beginning acupuncture treatment. Additionally, if you have this side effect commonly you will want to discuss with your acupuncturist or consider a different provider. Also, if you have an issue with needles, some patients report feeling light headed. Be careful rising after your first few treatments until you know your response.

During the procedure, you may experience muscle twitching. This is not really a side effect, but a consequence of the procedure and is normal. Sometimes muscle spasm can be significant enough to cause pain. Let your acupuncturist know, but do not be alarmed.

The Bottom Line

Acupuncture may help some people with asthma breath better, but the evidence supporting this procedure for the treatment of asthma is significantly lacking.

Before you seek out a practitioner, be sure to mention this to your regular healthcare provider.

Sources:

Gruber W, Eber E, Malle-Scheid D, et al. Laser acupuncture in children and adolescents with exercise induced asthma. Thorax 2002, 57:222–225.

Shapira MY, Berkman N, Ben-David G, et al. Short-term acupuncture therapy is of no benefit in patients with moderate persistent asthma. Chest 2002,121:1396–1400.

Medici TC, Grebski E, Wu J, et al. Acupuncture and bronchial asthma: a long-term randomized study of the effects of real versus sham acupuncture compared to controls in patients with bronchial asthma. J Altern Complement Med 2002, 8:737–750.

Malmstrom M, Ahlner J, Carlsson C, et al. No effect of Chinese acupuncture on isocapnic hyperventilation with cold air in asthmatics, measured with impulse oscillometry. Acupunct Med 2002, 20:66–73.

Norheim AJ. Adverse effects of acupuncture: a study of the literature for the years 1981–1994. J Altern Complement Med 1996, 2:291–297.

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