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
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