Written by Karen Pilkington, Edzard Ernst and the CAM-Cancer Consortium.
Updated July 14, 2015

Acupuncture for breathlessness

Does it work?

Systematic reviews

Systematic reviews of various interventions for breathlessness in advanced stages of malignant and non-malignant diseases located five RCTs including a single RCT in cancer (described below). The conclusions were that there was not enough evidence to recommend the routine use of acupuncture/acupressure.10,11 One of these reviews has been withdrawn for updating and is not currently available.11

Randomised controlled trials

One RCT involved the treatment of 47 patients suffering from advanced breast or lung cancer and breathlessness.12 They received a single session of real or sham acupuncture in addition to standard drug treatments. Semi-permanent studs were subsequently inserted for twice daily self-treatments. Follow-up was one week. The results show a slight but statistically not significant advantage in terms of symptomatic relief for the real acupuncture group. The authors concluded that the acupuncture technique used in this trial is unlikely to have effects on dyspnoea (breathlessness) 'importantly larger than placebo' for patients with advanced cancer.

Uncontrolled clinical trials

An open and uncontrolled pilot-study included 20 cancer patients with severe breathlessness at rest. They were treated with one acupuncture session, and subsequently 14 patients reported marked symptomatic relief.13 The authors concluded that the therapeutic value of acupuncture in the management of breathlessness requires further evaluation.

 

Whether breathlessness due to conditions other than cancer can be effectively treated with acupuncture is also not clear. Trials have generated both positive 14 as well as negative answers.15 A more recent systematic review on the effects of acupuncture in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease concluded that, overall, there were indications of beneficial effects on dyspnoea.16 Further research is needed to provide conclusive evidence because of the small numbers and moderate quality of the trials, variation in the interventions tested and short treatment duration.

Citation Karen Pilkington, Edzard Ernst, CAM-Cancer Consortium. Acupuncture for breathlessness [online document]. http://ws.cam-cancer.org/The-Summaries/Mind-body-interventions/Acupuncture-for-breathlessness. July 14, 2015.

References

  1. BAcC (British Acupuncture Council) website: Ten Top Things to Know, accessed 17th April 2015.
  2. Filshie, J., Cummings, M. Western medical acupuncture. In: Ernst, E., White, A.  (Eds). Acupuncture: A Scientific Appraisal. 1999. Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford. pp 31-59.
  3. White A; Editorial Board of Acupuncture in Medicine. Western medical acupuncture: a definition. Acupunct Med. 2009 27(1):33-5.
  4. White A, Ernst E. Introduction. In: Ernst, E., White, A. (Eds). Acupuncture: A Scientific Appraisal. 1999. Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford. pp1-10.
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  7. Zhao ZQ. Neural mechanism underlying acupuncture analgesia. Prog Neurobiol 2008; 84(4):355-375.
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  9. Molassiotis A, Fernadez-Ortega P, Pud D, Ozden G, Scott JA, Panteli V, Margulies A, Browall M, Magri M, Selvekerova S, Madsen E, Milovics L, Bruyns I, Gudmundsdottir G, Hummerston S, Ahmad AM, Platin N, Kearney N, Patiraki E. Use of complementary and alternative medicine in cancer patients: a European survey. Ann Oncol. 2005 16(4):655-63.
  10. Ben-Aharon I, Gafter-Gvili A, Paul M et al. Interventions for alleviating cancer-related dyspnea: a systematic review. J Clin Oncol 2008; 26: 2396-404.
  11. Bausewein C, Booth S, Gysels M et al. Non-pharmacological interventions for breathlessness in advanced stages of malignant and non-malignant diseases. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2008; 2: CD005623.
  12. Vickers AJ, Feinstein MB, Deng GE et al. Acupuncture for dyspnea in advanced cancer: a randomized, placebo-controlled pilot trial. BMC Palliat Care 2005; 4: 5.
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  14. Jobst K, Chen JH, McPherson K et al. Controlled trial of acupuncture for disabling breathlessness. Lancet 1986; 2: 1416-9.
  15. Lewith GT, Prescott P, Davis CL. Can a standardized acupuncture technique palliate disabling breathlessness: a single-blind, placebo-controlled crossover study. Chest 2004; 125: 1783-90.
  16. Coyle ME, Shergis JL, Huang ET, Guo X, Di YM, Zhang A, Xue CC. Acupuncture therapies for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: a systematic review of randomized, controlled trials. Altern Ther Health Med. 2014; 20(6):10-23.
  17. White A, Hayhoe S, Ernst E. Survey of Adverse Events Following Acupuncture Acupunct Med. 1997; 15:67-70.
  18. Witt CM, Pach D, Brinkhaus B, Wruck K, Tag B, Mank S, Willich SN. Safety of acupuncture: results of a prospective observational study with 229,230 patients and introduction of a medical information and consent form. Forsch Komplementmed. 2009 Apr;16(2):91-7.
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  20. Ernst E. Deaths after acupuncture: a systematic review. Int J Risk Safety 2010; 22(3):131-136.
  21. BMAS (British Medical Acupuncture Society): Code of Practice & Complaints Procedure. Version 9 December 2009, accessed 21st July 2015.