Acupuncture for Relief of Breathlessness

Can Acupuncture Help my Breathing?

Dear Dr. Mahler: I want to know your thoughts on using acupuncture to help my breathing.   I was told 6 years ago that I had COPD, and my breathing continues to slowly get worse. I was taking Spiriva and Advair for years, and use ProAir several times a day. My doctor recently had me stop both Spiriva and Advair, and tried me on Anoro.  It may have helped a little, but I really can’t do the things that I want because I get winded easily. On some days, I am short of breath just getting out of bed or getting dressed. I did pulmonary rehabilitation in the past, but can’t exercise because of back pain due to spinal stenosis. I tried acupuncture a few years ago for my back pain, and it helped a lot. Do you think that it can help my breathing problem? Betty from Red Bank, NJ Dear Betty: According to traditional Chinese medicine, qi is the life force that flows through pathways in our body. If there is an  imbalance between complementary forces – yin (means shady side) and yang (means sunny side) – qi is disrupted and illness develops. Acupuncture involves the placement of thin needles into the skin to correct imbalances in qi.  There are at least 350 different acupuncture points in the body where energy flow can be accessed. Generally, at each treatment, 5 – 20 needles are inserted at various acupuncture sites and left in place for 10 – 20 min. Usually, there are 6 – 12 treatments over a few months.
Multiple needles placed into skin of individual.

Multiple needles placed into skin of individual.

Acupuncture is most commonly used for pain relief, and is generally safe when done by an appropriately trained practitioner using clean technique and single-use needles.

Effects of Acupuncture in COPD

Different studies have examined the effects of acupuncture for those who have COPD. In November 2014, Coyle and colleagues from Australia reviewed the results of 16 studies which compared acupuncture with no treatment in patients with COPD (medical journal: Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine)(http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25478799). Overall, patients had less breathlessness and had better quality of life after acupuncture compared with placebo (sham or pretend treatment). In a few studies, investigators measured levels of endorphins (naturally occurring narcotic substances made in our bodies), and found that they increased after acupuncture, while there was no change in these levels after placebo. It is possible that the release of endorphins (just like taking morphine) with acupuncture may have contributed to a feeling that breathing was easier and quality of life was improved.

Should You Try Acupuncture?

I suggest that you share this information  with your doctor and ask about any possible risks. Also, you will need to find out if there is a licensed acupuncturist in your area. If there is, you may wish to call her/his office and ask specifically about that person’s experience in treating those with COPD. Acupressure points for relieving breathing problems are shown below (sites A – E).
Acupressure points for relieving breathing problems.

Acupressure points for relieving breathing problems

Acupressure points for relieving breathing problems.

Acupressure points for relieving breathing problems.

Acupressure points for relieving breathing problems.

Acupressure points for relieving breathing problemPlease let me know if you try acupuncture and whether it is helpful for you.

Please let me know if you try acupuncture and if it helps you.  Best wishes, Donald A. Mahler, M.D.

Donald A. Mahler, M.D. is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire. He works as a pulmonary physician at Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont, NH, where he is Director of Respiratory Services.