Acupuncture for Asthma: Fact or Fiction?

Acupuncture for asthma may seem like an odd combination. One is a common disease that affects approximately 20 million Americans; the other is a mysterious and esoteric alternative medicine technique. Many people have asthma, but few people have tried acupuncture.

But if you have asthma, sometimes it can seem like anything else is worth trying, even something as mysterious as acupuncture. Breathing is something most of us never think about. It is an unconscious process and unless we are sick we easily get the oxygen we need. But for people with asthma, breathing is always on their mind. There is always the possibility that an asthma attack will take your breath away. Sometimes these attacks are predictable and sometimes not, sometimes they are minor and easy to manage at home, and sometimes asthma sufferers end up in an emergency room. It is not surprising that some people with asthma have turned to acupuncture for asthma.

Asthma is a chronic disease with no cure. There are different types of asthma, but they all produce the same signs and symptoms: rapid breathing, sweating, racing heartbeat, and the uncomfortable feeling of suffocation. The exact cause of asthma is unknown (there may be a genetic factor at play), but there is no doubt that environmental factors (cold, dust, pollution, etc.) trigger attacks. During attacks, inflammation and constriction of the airways limit the amount of air that can be inhaled, attacks can last minutes or hours, and as mentioned above, there is no cure. But although there is no cure, constant efforts are being made to find new treatment methods, and there are doctors and patients who believe that acupuncture for asthma is the answer.

Acupuncture (the word comes from the Latin words accus, which means needle, and pungere, which means to prick) is a very ancient system of medicine. It is not clear where acupuncture originates from, but it has become more closely associated with China. In acupuncture, very narrow needles are inserted into the skin (barely penetrating the surface) at certain key points on the body. The needles are said to correct a disharmony in the flow of energy through the body, a disharmony that is said to be the cause of disease. Traditional Western medicine has several theories about how acupuncture works (eg, it can stimulate the release of natural pain relievers, endorphins) but has not yet fully explained how acupuncture works.

Of course, the big question is, does acupuncture work? And can acupuncture successfully treat asthma? Well, just like searching for an explanation of how asthma works, the answers are not clear, and they depend on who you ask. According to traditional acupuncturists, yes, acupuncture for asthma is an effective treatment, especially with asthma in young children. There are dozens of websites and thousands of testimonials that attest to the effectiveness of acupuncture as a treatment for asthma. Acupuncture, they say, has worked where nothing else has.

But ask the same question – does acupuncture work for asthma? To doctors and scientists who have been trained in traditional western medicine and scientific methodology, and the answer will be very different. Acupuncture, they say, is such an interesting phenomenon, but the question of how it works is less important than the question of whether it works, and their answer is no. There is no conclusive evidence that acupuncture for asthma works, and a review of the scientific studies that have attempted to answer this question has not shown that acupuncture is a viable technique for treating asthma. If there are reports that it works, this may be explained by the placebo effect (the placebo effect indicates that the patient may perceive medications or medical techniques / procedures as effective because they believe they are effective, but there is no measurable effect).

So can acupuncture really help someone with asthma? That seems to depend on your point of view. If you feel that the disease is caused by a disruption in the flow of energy and you are convinced by anecdotal reports, the only reasonable answer is: try it and find out. Acupuncture for asthma is very safe; serious side effects are very rare. But if you are the type of person who needs testing in the traditional sense, it may make more sense to stick with the medications / therapies you are taking and wait for solid evidence that acupuncture can help treat your asthma.

Written by Rebecca Prescott

September 7, 2020
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