Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2023 | Last updated: June 2023

Acupuncture is a type of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). TCM has been used for thousands of years. Some aspects of TCM are dietary, like using herbs to treat health issues. But TCM also includes physical practices like acupuncture and tai chi.1,2

TCM belongs to a treatment approach called complementary and integrative health (CIH). CIH refers to a set of healthcare practices that combine conventional medicine with non-conventional (complementary) treatment methods. The intention is to treat the body holistically. CIH can be useful in improving the symptoms of many health issues.2

What is acupuncture?

The practice of acupuncture centers around the idea that the body has an internal energy or life force. This life force is called qi (pronounced “chee”). A person’s qi is connected to their overall health. It is thought to flow through channels called meridians. A person who performs acupuncture (acupuncturist) places tiny, thin needles in specific places on the body to help align qi.3

A full session of acupuncture is often less than 1 hour. The needles are placed only to a shallow depth in the skin. About 5 to 20 needles may be used in total. Discomfort from the needles is generally mild.3,4

In some cases, the acupuncturist will gently move the needles around while they are in the skin. One form of acupuncture, electroacupuncture, passes a light electrical current through the needles.3,4

Acupuncture is thought to help with pain relief, improve chemotherapy side effects, and reduce stress. But research into the potential benefits of acupuncture is mixed.1,3-5

How might acupuncture help with COPD?

How acupuncture might help people with COPD is not well understood. Existing research involves few people and a lot of variation. While there is not much evidence for acupuncture's effectiveness in treating COPD, some studies suggest that it may offer certain benefits for COPD patients.4-7

There are theories that acupuncture can relax the muscles involved in breathing to improve airflow. And some experts believe acupuncture reduces inflammation in the airways. This is because it releases chemicals that relax the blood vessels and immune system.4-7

All of these potential effects may help people with COPD by improving:4-7

  • Breathing
  • Quality of life
  • Physical discomfort or pain
  • Anxiety and stress
  • Mental health
  • General discomfort

More research is needed, but acupuncture could be helpful alongside traditional COPD treatments.4-7

What are the possible side effects of acupuncture?

Although it is generally considered safe, there are some potential side effects of acupuncture. These include:3,8

  • Mild pain or discomfort
  • Mild bleeding or bruising
  • Infection at needle placement sites (most places use disposable needles to prevent this)
  • Fainting or dizziness
  • Muscle spasms

Serious complications of acupuncture are not common. However, one important possibility for those with COPD is developing pneumothorax (a collapsed lung). This is very rare, but it can be serious. Seek medical attention right away if you notice a sudden change in your breathing after an acupuncture session.8

Things to know about acupuncture

Acupuncture should be performed by a trained professional. There are national certifications and other training an acupuncturist can complete. Ask your provider about their training. You can also ask your doctor for acupuncturist suggestions in your area.2,3

Some people may have a higher risk of complications from acupuncture than others. These include those who are pregnant, as acupuncture has the potential to trigger labor. Acupuncture also may not be safe for people with bleeding disorders. And electrical stimulation during electroacupuncture may impact the way a heart pacemaker works.3

If you are interested in acupuncture, ask your doctor whether it is safe for you. You should also tell your acupuncturist about any health issues you have before starting treatment.

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