Important to know: Chronic health conditions should be addressed under direct medical supervision of your GP or consultant, and acupuncture would be an adjunct or complement to usual care – we advise that you let you doctor know when you use this approach.
Asthma affects around 5.4 million people in the UK. The British Acupuncture Council has produced a research based fact sheet for patients, as well as a review of the evidence for effectiveness in this area (see Resources, below)
About the research: It is worth noting that in research, randomised controlled studies (RCT) are the most reliable in terms of quality of evidence, with a systematic review or meta analysis of numerous studies being the best way of seeing the overall picture of the state of the evidence. Below we have a selection of the available research, which does include some larger RCTs, and reviews of the literature alongside smaller studies. The n= figure tells you how many people were participants in the study.
There is some evidence from trials to suggest acupuncture may be a useful adjunct to usual care, be beneficial over placebo and can improve quality of life and be cost effective in asthma (Karlson & Bennicke, 2013; Chu et al 2007; Rheinhold et al, 2014).
Some systematic reviews have been carried out into acupuncture in this area, with the most recent looking at 11 trials, found that many were only small trials and that more research would be needed (Martin et al, 2002) and a Cochrane meta-analysis a year later (McCarney et al, 2003) looked at 12 studies (n=350) drew a similar conclusion. More recently Chen et al, (2020) proposed a protocol for a new systematic review and meta analysis of the research, as they noted that an increasing amount of research trials have been done in this area in recent years, warranting a further, large and structured review.
Brinkahus et al, (2017) carried out a large randomised pragmatic trial in Germany (n=1445) giving acupunctrure in addition to usual care for allergic asthma, and comparing to a usual care alone group. They found symptomatic improvement, as well as improvement in quality of life (asthma quality of life questionnaire – AQLQ) measures for the acupuncture group.
Mechanisms of action:
In the condition of allergic asthma, inflammatory considerations may play a key part in the process. Acupuncture has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects, and a review article (Kavoussi & Ross, 2007) suggests this may be due to activation of the vagus nerve, alongside deactivation of inflammatory macrophages and other proinflammatory cytokines which have been seen in studies.
Other studies (Zijlstra et al, 2003) suggest some of the anti-inflammatory effects exhibited in acupuncture may be due to stimulation of vasodilators, neurotransmitters and painkillers (beta-endorphins, CGRP and substance P) within the body when acupuncture is applied, and these further stimulate cytokines and nitric oxide, all of which play roles in inflammatory states.
British Acupuncture Council evidence based factsheet about asthma including specific research, trials and mechanisms of action for acupuncture in this condition.
British Acupuncture Council Review Paper: Bronchial asthma and acupuncture: the evidence for effectiveness
Brinkhaus, B., Roll, S., Jena, S., Icke, K., Adam, D., Binting, S., Lotz, F., Willich, S.N. and Witt, C.M., 2017. Acupuncture in patients with allergic asthma: a randomized pragmatic trial. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 23(4), pp.268-277.
Chen, Y.M., Xie, X.L., Xiao, P.Y., Wang, Q.H., Wang, J.S., Yu, X.D. and Deng, S., 2020. Acupuncture on treating asthma: A protocol for systematic review and meta analysis. Medicine, 99(1).
Chu, K.A., Wu, Y.C., Ting, Y.M., Wang, H.C. and Lu, J.Y., 2007. Acupuncture therapy results in immediate bronchodilating effect in asthma patients. Journal of the Chinese Medical Association, 70(7), pp.265-268.
Karlson, G. and Bennicke, P., 2013. Acupuncture in asthmatic children: a prospective, randomized, controlled clinical trial of efficacy. Alternative therapies in health and medicine, 19(4), p.13.
Martin, J., Donaldson, A.N.A., Villarroel, R., Parmar, M.K.B., Ernst, E. and Higginson, I.J., 2002. Efficacy of acupuncture in asthma: systematic review and meta-analysis of published data from 11 randomised controlled trials. European Respiratory Journal, 20(4), pp.846-852.
McCarney RW et al. Acupuncture for chronic asthma. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2003, Issue 3. Art. No.: CD000008. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD000008.pub2
Reinhold, T., Brinkhaus, B., Willich, S.N. and Witt, C., 2014. Acupuncture in patients suffering from allergic asthma: is it worth additional costs?. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 20(3), pp.169-177.