Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: February 2022 | Last updated: March 2022

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a central part of traditional Chinese medicine. It is often used to help relieve pain. During acupuncture, tiny, thin needles are inserted into specific points on a person's body. The needles are usually left in place for 10 to 20 minutes before the therapist removes them. Sometimes, the therapist may slightly move the needles 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 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 people with COPD use acupuncture as a complementary therapy. This means acupuncture is used along with their prescribed drugs and treatment plans, not instead of them. You should talk with your doctor before beginning acupuncture or any new type of therapy.2

People with COPD 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 relax those muscles and make breathing easier. Others believe that acupuncture triggers the release of certain chemicals that work to open up the airways and relax the breathing muscles. Acupuncture may also help to reduce anxiety, which is common among people 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 some Western doctors may be less likely to suggest it to their patients.

However, a study published in 2012 studied the effects of acupuncture among 68 people with COPD. The people were divided into 2 groups for the study:3

  • 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 they were getting real acupuncture. However, the needles were not actually inserted into their skin.3

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

These results suggest that acupuncture may be an effective complementary therapy for many people 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 people can barely feel them. But sometimes, acupuncture can cause some soreness, bruising, or slight bleeding where the needles were inserted.1

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

  • Are pregnant
  • Have bleeding disorders
  • Have a pacemaker

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