Relief may be on the way for some of the roughly 24 million Americans who suffer from COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. A new study has found that acupuncture may improve breathing problems in people with COPD, making it easier for them to complete physical tasks and minimizing the feeling of breathlessness that often accompanies exertion.
The study, conducted in Japan and published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, followed patients who had received three months of acupuncture. Researchers found the benefits from the alternative treatment were equal to, or better than, what's been reported for conventional drugs and exercises.
COPD — a disease categorization that includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis — is irreversible lung damage that is often caused by smoking. The primary symptom of the condition is shortness of breath. At present, the disease is typically treated with medications such as steroids and inhalers as well as breathing exercises.
For this study, doctors followed 68 COPD patients, half of whom were given weekly acupuncture sessions, while the other half received "fake" acupuncture sessions with needles that don't actually pierce the skin. Prior to the treatment and at the end of the 12-week trial period, patients performed a standard six-minute walking test during which researchers measured the distance walked and shortness of breath during walking (on a scale of 1 to 10.)
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.
The comparison group did not see these improvements. Breathlessness scores held steady — they were 4.2 before treatment and 4.6 after — and there was no improvement in patients' walk distance.
While the researchers don't recommend using acupuncture in lieu of conventional treatment, they do think the benefits noted by the survey warrant more research — and for those who can afford it, it certainly can't hurt to try it.