A new study from Japan shows three months of acupuncture can improve breathing problems for people with chronic lung disease, COPD – an irreversible impairment of lung function, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis often caused by smoking.
“We don’t know if this is going to extend life, but the study suggests it improves quality of life,” said Dr. George Lewith, from the University of Southampton in England. “If I had enough money and I was the patient, I would give acupuncture a try.”
Shortness of breath is one of the main symptoms of COPD and acupuncture promotes relaxation. “What acupuncture does is it seems to relax all the muscles around the chest wall,” said Lewith.
The new findings are based on 68 patients treated with real or fake acupuncture. Half of them had weekly acupuncture sessions, with needles placed at points on the arms, stomach, back, chest and legs that have been tied to asthma and other lung problems. Participants in the comparison group went through similar sessions where practitioners use needles that don’t actually pierce the skin.
All patients were allowed to stay on whatever medications they were already taking.
Before starting treatment and at the end of the 12 weeks, patients did a standard six-minute walking test and researchers measured how far they got in that time and how much breathing trouble they had doing it. Breathlessness was assessed on a standard 10-point scale, with 10 representing the most difficulty breathing.
In the real acupuncture group, shortness of breath was initially rated at 5.5 out of 10 after walking. After 12 weeks of treatment, that fell to 1.9. The average distance those patients were able to walk in six minutes also improved, from about 370 meters to 440 meters.
In the comparison group, breathlessness scores held steady — at 4.2 before treatment and 4.6 after — and there was no improvement in patients’ walk distance.
“In a disease like COPD, we need to expand our thinking and come up with varying strategies to improve quality of life and relieve breathlessness,” said Dr. Ravi Kalhan, head of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine’s asthma and COPD program in Chicago.