Can acupuncture improve shortness of breath in people with COPD?

If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you know that shortness of breath, or dyspnea, on exertion is a troubling symptom. But a small study from Japan suggests that there may be help from a surprising therapy—acupuncture.

For the study, 68 people with COPD were randomly assigned to receive real acupuncture, with needles placed near respiratory muscles, or placebo acupuncture. Once-weekly real or placebo acupuncture sessions took place for 12 weeks. Study subjects took a six-minute walk test at the beginning and end of the study. All participants continued taking their usual medication.

At the end of the study, those who underwent real acupuncture experienced significantly less breathlessness on exertion and significantly greater improvements in the distance they were able to walk during the six-minute walk test. These improvements were comparable to or better than improvements that would be expected from rehabilitation or exercise in COPD patients.

The results must be confirmed in a larger, longer study before the treatment can be recommended. That said, acupuncture is generally a low-risk procedure. If you're thinking of giving it a try, ask your doctor to recommend a medical acupuncturist in your area. Keep in mind that you'll still need to continue with your current COPD regimen.

Source: Archives of Internal Medicine, Volume 172, page 878, June 2012

Publication Review By: Peter B. Terry, M.D., M.A.

Published: 06 Aug 2013

Last Modified: 10 Sep 2015