Can Acupuncture Be Used as COPD Treatment?

Acupuncture originates from traditional Chinese medicine, and is long thought to be beneficial for a variety of diseases. Acupuncture is thought to enhance the strength of the diaphragm and assist with muscular fatigue in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), help with bronchial asthma symptoms, and mitigate nasal congestion associated with allergic rhinitis. Acupuncture may reduce inflammation by regulating inflammatory cytokines or mediating our innate immune response.

Key takeaways:
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    COPD is an incurable disease, but alternative treatments such as acupuncture may show future promise as a treatment.
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    Acupuncture is believed to improve the life-giving force also known as "qi."
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    Acupuncture may affect our innate immune system through both pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines.
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    Acupuncture may enhance the strength of the diaphragm and relieve respiratory muscle fatigue associated with COPD symptoms.

How is COPD treated?

The goals of COPD treatment are to improve the patient's breathing. This improvement leads to the better overall function and quality of life in three ways. No treatment, other than lung transplantation, can assure significantly improved lung function or decrease morbidity due to COPD. Oxygen supplementation and stopping smoking can decrease mortality. Goals for improvement include:

  • Preserving optimal lung function
  • Improving symptoms
  • Preventing the recurrence of exacerbations

One of the key features in the management of COPD is fighting inflammation. Systemic and inhaled corticosteroids are known to improve inflammation and potentially slow or stop the progression of the disease.

Acupuncture and COPD

Acupuncture is a therapy that uses thin needles in specific areas of the body. It is used to treat a variety of diseases and ailments including migraines, chronic pain, and most recently, as a supportive treatment for COPD.

The philosophy behind acupuncture is not based on traditional medicine or science. It is rooted in the belief that the human body has an invisible life-giving force which is called “qi.” Qi represents your body’s natural inner strength and vitality.

Acupuncture as a systemic treatment for COPD has been studied for many years, but the results are inconsistent because of low methodological quality and clinical evidence.

Recently, because of the pandemic and the heightened awareness regarding the treatment of respiratory diseases and COPD have been given more attention in animal studies.

The findings show promise in that acupuncture may mitigate many diseases by reducing inflammation and modulation of our innate immune system regulated by cytokines. Cytokines represent our primary mediators of inflammation.

The effects of acupuncture may include pulmonary function, lung resistance, and lung dynamic compliance. Acupuncture may increase FEVs (forced expiratory volumes), forced vitality capacity, inspiratory capacity, peak expiratory flow, and minute volume.

Some studies showed that acupuncture can effectively enhance the strength of the diaphragm and relieve respiratory muscle fatigue associated with COPD symptoms. Acupuncture can enhance lung function, decrease low oxygenation levels, and promote the avoidance of carbon dioxide retention.

How does acupuncture affect the immune system?

It is thought that acupuncture can affect the inflammatory cytokines in lung tissue and the surrounding fluids of the airways. In respiratory disease, there are pro-inflammatory cytokines that can cause excess mucous production and airway stiffness or fibrosis. Pro-inflammatory cytokines, such as IL-1, 6, 8, 18, and TNF-α, were lowered by acupuncture.

In COPD and asthma specifically, the cytokines can be anti-inflammatory as well. These are the IL-10 cytokines. Acupuncture can induce anti-inflammatory cytokines and therefore mitigate inflammation. In asthma, acupuncture may play a special role in balancing some of these cytokine relationships.

COPD may be improved by acupuncture because of the amelioration of lung dysfunction by the regulation of these cytokines as an important therapeutic addition to the treatment of COPD. The variability of the practice of acupuncture by practitioners and the variability of COPD patients’ severity of disease make way for more research and study in the treatment of COPD.

Acupuncture may play role in COPD rehab

Follow-up for COPD patients is essential for all COPD patients with varying frequencies depending on the clinical picture. In most patients, if there has been an exacerbation of the patient’s COPD symptoms, there is more airway edema and debris that has accumulated.

Most, if not all, patients with exacerbations of their COPD symptoms require anti-inflammatory medications such as corticosteroids and pulmonary inhalers. Close follow-up is part of the management along with their long-term goals of pulmonary rehabilitation.

It may be possible that in the future, acupuncture may represent yet another tool in the physician’s toolbox to assist COPD patients with both their exacerbations and long-term pulmonary rehabilitation. The goals would include:

  • Lessening airflow limitation
  • Prevention and treatment of secondary medical complications such as infection or low oxygenation
  • Decreasing respiratory symptoms
  • Improvement of quality of life

There is little risk in trying acupuncture. In fact, many people find acupuncture to be relaxing and an alleviation of anxiety, so there may be some psychosomatic benefits as well.

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