MONDAY, May 14, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- For patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), acupuncture may help relieve shortness of breath during activity, Japanese researchers suggest.
COPD is a progressive lung condition that makes it hard to breathe; it is commonly caused by smoking or exposure to other toxins.
"The effects of acupuncture are large," said Dr. George Lewith, from the University of Southampton in Hampshire, England, co-author of an editorial accompanying the study. "This is particularly remarkable in a condition that seems largely unresponsive to more conventional treatments."
Acupuncture, an ancient Chinese practice, involves the insertion of thin needles into certain points on the body to boost health and well-being. The researchers tested it in addition to standard medical care.
If this study can be duplicated and this effect is deemed valid, acupuncture may be a treatment that "can substantially improve the quality and potentially the quantity of people's lives who have [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease]," Lewith said.
"Acupuncture is safe, and people with [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] should try it," he added. "We need to do further studies, in particular evaluating the cost effectiveness of this intervention."
The study was published in the May 14 online edition of the Archives of Internal Medicine.
There is no cure for COPD. Current treatment is directed toward slowing its progression and reducing flare-ups that require hospitalization.
By 2020, the disease is likely to be the third leading cause of death worldwide, the researchers noted.
For the study, a team led by Masao Suzuki, from Kyoto University and Meiji University of Integrative Medicine in Japan, randomly assigned 68 patients suffering from severe COPD to 12 weeks of acupuncture and standard medication, or a sham procedure in which the acupuncture needles didn't actually penetrate the skin.
The researchers looked for improvement in a six-minute walking test.
Patients who received acupuncture saw a significant improvement in breathing ability, but those who had the sham procedure were no less breathless than they had been, the researchers found. The acupuncture group also was able to walk farther.
"Our results clearly demonstrated that acupuncture is important and effective non-pharmacological modality for COPD management, which should be used [as an] adjunct to the conventional care," Suzuki said.
"We would like patients and health care providers to be aware of that acupuncture could be a useful modality, not only for painful conditions, but also internal disorders such as COPD," he added.
The researchers speculated that acupuncture reduces stress and improves the strength and mobility of the chest muscles, making the chest more pliable and resulting in easier breathing.
But randomized trials with more participants and longer-term interventions are needed to confirm the usefulness of acupuncture in treating COPD, the authors concluded. Although acupuncture appeared to alleviate the disease's symptoms in this study, a cause-and-effect relationship was not proven.
Dr. Norman Edelman, chief medical officer at the American Lung Association, accepted the findings with caution.
"We have to accept the results as real," he said. "Are they surprising? Yes."
But it's hard to see how acupuncture improved lung function, he said.
"The reasons for the effect could be biologic or placebo," he noted. "[Acupuncture] certainly would not replace current therapies."
If the effect of acupuncture is lasting or if it lessens over time isn't known, Edelman said. But for patients with substantial shortness of breath that can't be controlled, trying acupuncture may be worthwhile.
Acupuncture generally costs $60 to $120 a session, and some insurance plans cover it. Medicare currently does not.
For more information on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, visit the American Lung Association.