What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a central part of traditional Chinese medicine, which is often used to help relieve pain. During acupuncture, needles that are tiny and very thin are inserted into specific points on a patient’s body. The needles are usually left in place for 10-20 minutes before the therapist removes them. Sometimes, the therapist might move the needles slightly while they are in place on the body. In other cases, the needles might have very mild electrical currents delivered through them.1

According to the Chinese medical tradition, acupuncture works by balancing the flow of energy in a person’s body. Western acupuncture therapists often consider it a way to stimulate the body’s nerves, muscles, and tissues. Many believe that this can help to:

  • Improve blood flow
  • Enhance the naturally occurring pain relievers produced by the body

Can acupuncture be used to treat COPD?

Some COPD patients use acupuncture as a complementary therapy. This means that acupuncture is used alongside their prescribed medications and treatment plans, not instead of them. Patients should talk with their healthcare providers before beginning acupuncture or any new type of therapy.2

COPD patients who get acupuncture report that it relieves some of their symptoms, such as breathlessness. Some researchers believe that using acupuncture needles on the rib-cage area may help to relax those muscles and make breathing easier. Others believe that the acupuncture triggers the release of certain chemicals in the body that work to open up the airways and relax the breathing muscles. Acupuncture may also help to reduce anxiety, which is common among patients with COPD.2

Have there been studies about the use of acupuncture to treat COPD?

The effects of acupuncture in treating COPD have not yet been tested in large-scale scientific studies. This means that some Western healthcare providers may be less likely to suggest it to their patients.

However, a recent study was published that studied the effects of acupuncture among a small group of 68 people with COPD.3 The patients were divided into two groups for the study:

  • One group received their daily COPD medicines plus real acupuncture once a week
  • One group received their daily COPD medicines plus fake acupuncture once a week

The group that received the fake acupuncture thought that they were getting real acupuncture, but the needles were not actually inserted into their skin.

After 3 months of treatment, the group that received real acupuncture had less breathlessness than the group who got fake acupuncture. The patients who received real acupuncture also had greater improvements in their ability to exercise.

These results suggest that acupuncture may be an effective complementary therapy for many patients with COPD. More research is needed to further study the effects of acupuncture on COPD symptoms.

What are the side effects of acupuncture?

Much of the time, acupuncture is painless. The needles are so thin that the patient can barely feel them at all. But sometimes, acupuncture can cause some soreness, bruising, or slight bleeding where the needles were inserted.1

It is very important to make sure that the acupuncture therapist is trained and certified. If they are not qualified, then more serious side effects like infections or injury might occur. Acupuncture should usually be avoided by people who:1

  • Are pregnant
  • Have bleeding disorders
  • Have a pacemaker

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Written by: Anna Nicholson | Last reviewed: August 2020.