People living with asthma use a variety of methods to keep their condition under control. Common methods include taking daily medicine to lower inflammation in the airways, and using inhalers for quick relief when an asthma attack strikes, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
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For some people, complementary treatment options can boost the effectiveness of conventional treatments and help keep symptoms under control. Two such complementary options include acupressure and acupuncture.
Acupressure is a form of massage (also known as bodywork) that’s been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years as a treatment for illness and pain, according to the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine. It’s based on the same ideas as another type of traditional Chinese medicine: acupuncture.
Both forms of therapy involve stimulating pressure points on the body, but in acupressure the practitioner uses the hands and elbows to apply physical pressure, and in acupuncture he or she inserts very thin needles in the skin; the needles are activated through gentle movements of the practitioner’s hands or with electrical stimulation, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
The idea is that by stimulating various pressure, or acupoints, on the body, you can work on bringing about therapeutic effects for a given condition, according to Malcolm B. Taw, MD, the director of the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine in Westlake Village and an associate clinical professor in the UCLA Department of Medicine in Los Angeles. A review published in 2015 in the journal Pain Medicine looked at current research and evidence on the definition and function of acupoints and concluded that they may release certain substances or sustain certain changes in ways that adjust the function of specific organs, maintain homeostasis in the body, or affect symptoms of various diseases.
Pressing acupoints via acupressure, for example, can help release muscle tension and promote blood circulation, according to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. More specifically, applying pressure to acupoints can signal to the body to “turn on” self-healing or regulatory mechanisms, sending vital energy (known as qi, pronounced “chee”) through natural pathways in the body called meridians. Research suggests that once the pressure point is stimulated, the qi flows from the pressure point through the meridian and into the target area. Similarly, stimulating pressure points with needles via acupuncture is thought to stimulate the central nervous system to release chemicals into the muscles, spinal cord, and brain, which may kickstart the body’s natural healing abilities, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
There are many acupoints that may be used to treat asthma symptoms. A few include bladder 13 (located on the back), conception vessel 17 (located on the chest), as well as lung 1 and kidney 27, which are located along the front of the torso, according to Dr. Taw.
What the Science Says About Acupuncture for Asthma
Acupuncture has been shown to be effective for relieving allergic asthma, according to Maeve O’Connor, MD, the chair of the Integrative Medicine Committee for the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology and an allergist in private practice at Allergy Asthma & Immunology Relief in Charlotte, North Carolina. Allergic asthma is a type of asthma where symptoms are caused by allergens like dust, mold, pollen, and food, she notes.
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In one study published in April 2017 in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, patients with allergic asthma who added 15 acupuncture sessions to routine care over the course of three months saw greater improvements in disease-specific and health-related quality of life compared with patients who received only routine care.
Another study found that patients with allergic asthma who received 12 acupuncture sessions that targeted the pressure points thought to be connected with asthma over four weeks reported a greater improvement in general well-being compared with a control group of individuals who received the same number of acupuncture treatments, but ones that didn’t necessarily target pressure points linked to asthma.
Plus, blood tests of those individuals who received asthma-specific acupuncture showed reductions in inflammatory cytokines (small proteins that influence how other cells communicate) after four weeks. Why does this matter for people with asthma? Well, asthma is a condition that leads to inflammation of the airways. The study shows that acupuncture can influence the physiological processes found in asthma by lowering levels of specific mediators involved with inflammation, Taw says.
In addition, a review and meta-analysis published in the January 2019 issue of Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that using acupuncture in addition to conventional asthma treatments led to a statistically significant improvement in symptom response rates, and resulted in lower levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), a protein your body produces in response to infections and injuries. Too much IL-6 can contribute to chronic inflammation, according to research published in the October 2014 issue of Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology. And as we’ve already seen, chronic inflammation is a hallmark of asthma. Therefore, the review and meta-analysis suggests that acupuncture may help lower inflammation in people with asthma by lowering levels of pro-inflammatory proteins like IL-6.
Ultimately, acupuncture is a good add-on to conventional asthma treatments, according to Taw. But acupuncture shouldn’t replace your usual asthma treatments. “We wouldn’t advise patients to stay away from conventional treatments,” Taw says. “But if they wanted to add it on, we have no problem adding acupuncture to help with the symptom response.”
Should I Try Acupressure for Asthma?
While several studies have looked at acupuncture’s effects on asthma (including the aforementioned ones), few have investigated the effectiveness of acupressure for helping with asthma. And while acupressure and acupuncture are therapies that follow similar principles, we cannot conclude with certainty that acupressure will create the same effects shown in acupuncture research studies, according to Taw.
But Taw adds that there are few safety concerns for acupressure for asthma when it is done correctly, and may be worth trying for some despite the lack of evidence behind it. “Acupressure is very safe, with minimal to no risk overall,” Taw says.
But it’s always a good idea to check with your doctor before beginning acupressure or any other complementary treatment. You should be especially cautious with acupressure if you’re pregnant, as stimulating certain pressure points — such as the large intestine 4 (known as he gu) — may induce labor and could cause harm, according to the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine.
It’s possible to perform acupressure on yourself (the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine offers this handy guide to locating the various pressure points), but you may want to seek help from someone who’s trained in this form of bodywork to better learn how to do it safely and effectively. Ask your doctor and people you trust for recommendations.
The Bottom Line About Trying Acupuncture and Acupressure for Asthma
Studies have mostly focused on asthma and acupuncture, and so far, the research suggests that adding acupuncture into your asthma treatment plan may improve your quality of life, boost your immune system, and ease symptoms.
Unfortunately, the research on asthma and acupressure is lacking, so we can’t know how effective it is. “While acupressure and acupuncture are therapies along a similar continuum, we unfortunately cannot conclude that acupressure will also lower inflammatory mediators, improve quality of life, and reduce symptoms,” Taw says.
That said, acupressure may help with symptoms, and there are very few safety concerns. But again, it’s a good idea to talk with your doctor or healthcare provider about adding any new complementary therapy — whether acupuncture, acupressure, or another modality — to your care.
If you’ve talked to your doctor and have decided it’s a good idea to try acupuncture or acupressure, find a practitioner you trust. Receiving acupuncture treatment in particular from an unqualified practitioner may result in complications, mainly through the use of nonsterile needles or improper delivery of treatments, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Though relatively few complications have been reported, improper delivery of acupuncture treatments can lead to serious health effects, including infections, punctured organs, collapsed lungs, and central nervous system damage.
Ask your doctor and trusted friends for referrals, or find a practitioner through the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.