What is COPD?
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic lung disease caused by long term exposure to hazardous chemicals such as cigarette smoke or particulate matter in the workplace or home. It is characterized by obstructed airflow from the lungs. Symptoms include shortness of breath, productive cough, chest tightness and wheezing.
COPD is treatable, and if properly managed good symptom control can be achieved. Common treatments include quitting smoking, as well as pharmaceutical medication and oxygen therapy. In recent studies, acupuncture has also been proven to be a helpful adjunct therapy for COPD. Effects include decreased dyspnea (shortness of breath), increased exercise capacity, and more ease in life. For these reasons, many people are choosing to add acupuncture treatment into their care regimen.
Acupuncture is proven effective
A high quality, double blind, randomized controlled trial was published in 2016 that explored the effectiveness of acupuncture treatment for COPD. Real acupuncture treatment was compared with sham acupuncture treatment; where needles are inserted at random points on the body rather than acupuncture points. 72 participants were recruited for the study. Results showed that those in the real acupuncture group had significantly less dyspnea on exertion after treatment based on the 6-minute walk test, as well as significantly increased quality of life ratings. Those in the sham acupuncture control group did not see statistically significant benefit. Researchers concluded that acupuncture is effective for the treatment of COPD. (5)
Another double blind, randomized placebo controlled trial was published in 2012. This study also looked at the effectiveness of real acupuncture on COPD as compared with placebo needling in patients. In addition to needling, all participants also received standard medication. 68 participants were recruited for the study. Results showed that after 12 weeks those in the real acupuncture group had significantly better results than those in the control group, as measured by the modified Borg dyspnea scale and the 6-minute walk test. Patients who received real acupuncture also experienced improvement in the 6-minute walk distance during exercise, indicating better exercise tolerance. They also experienced decreased dyspnea on exertion. Researchers concluded that acupuncture is a useful adjunctive therapy in reducing dyspnea on exertion in patients with COPD. (6)
Another randomized controlled trial was published in 2008 which looked at the effectiveness of acupuncture on COPD as compared with conservative treatment with medication. The acupuncture group received acupuncture once a week along with medication, whereas the control group received only the medication. Sixty patient were recruited for the study. Results showed that the acupuncture group had significantly better results on the Borg dyspnea scale than those in the control group after 10 weeks of weekly treatments. Specifically, the six-minute walk distance and oxygen saturation levels improved significantly in the acupuncture group compared with the control group. Researchers concluded that acupuncture is an effective treatment for decreasing dyspnea in those with COPD. (7)
How acupuncture works
Acupuncture yields multiple biological responses, related to the stimulation of sensory neurons that connect to structures within the central nervous system. This leads to activation of pathways affecting various physiological systems in the brain as well as in the periphery. Effects of this include a decrease in inflammation both generally and locally, as well as modulation of circulation in the area being treated. Acupuncture has also been shown to influence the release of naturally occurring pain relievers within the body, including endogenous opioids and endorphins.
Acupuncture's effects are also associated with stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system. Many people are familiar with the sympathetic nervous system, which controls our "fight or flight" response. The parasympathetic nervous system is paired with the sympathetic nervous system, and has the effect of clearing out stress hormones and re-allocating the body's resources towards healing and digesting. It is associated with improved activity of the immune system, as well as a greater sense of calm and well being. Acupuncture treatment has also been found to activate the hypothalamus and the pituitary glands, resulting in a broad spectrum of systemic effects that support general homeostasis.
Clinical studies about the specific mechanisms of acupuncture in the treatment of COPD are ongoing, though preliminary results show a variety of actions. Acupuncture treatment has been found to be associated with regulation of cardiac-pulmonary function, immune system modulation, and a decrease in inflammatory reactions. Additionally, it has been found that treatment with a TENS unit on acupuncture points significantly increases FEV1 as well as β-endorphin, both of which are associated with improved functional capacity in those with COPD.
To learn more about acupuncture and how it works, take a look at About Acupuncture or How Acupuncture Works. To learn more about the differences between Eastern and Western medicine, you can read About Eastern Medicine. To learn more about the Wisdom Traditions Acupuncture clinic, read About Us or Our Philosophy. If you have any additional questions, you can browse our FAQ or Contact Us. We're happy to answer any questions you may have. You can also Schedule an Appointment online.
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Marni Adhikari, M.Ac, L.Ac, Dipl.Ac, is the founder and acupuncturist at Wisdom Traditions Acupuncture of Essex Junction, VT