Acupuncture for Allergy

Got allergies? Acupuncture is frequently used as a natural treatment for allergies and sinus congestion. If the arrival of allergy season has you reaching for a box of tissues and your usual antihistamine or decongestant – you’re in luck. Research demonstrates acupuncture works for allergies and sinus!

Most of my patients come in after suffering for years with allergy symptoms and blocked sinuses. Often it is with only a vague hope of getting relief having tried multiple allergy treatments. Fortunately, natural treatment alternatives are available for people who are seeking allergy and sinus relief. But are the results real or is acupuncture a placebo?

Acupuncture & Allergy Placebo?

Recent research on acupuncture was published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine. But the treatment results left researcher’s wondering if acupuncture was effective in the long run or if it was a placebo effect.

The Research

The study consisted of 422 people who tested positive for pollen allergies and also suffered with nasal symptoms such as runny nose and sinus congestion. All participants took antihistamines as needed.  Researchers divided them into 3 groups: the acupuncture treatment group, the ‘sham’ acupuncture treatment group, and the antihistamine only group. Each of the acupuncture groups received 12 treatments over a two month period.

After 2 months of treatment, patients receiving the real acupuncture reported markedly decreased allergy symptoms and a reduction in their need for antihistamines compared to the other groups. However, even the ‘sham’ acupuncture group reported some symptom relief which led researchers to conclude that a placebo effect might be partially responsible for their improvement. These results even lasted throughout the 4 months of follow up without any further acupuncture treatment, although the differences between all groups were less pronounced after treatment had ended.

This outcome led the authors to conclude: “Acupuncture led to statistically significant improvements in disease-specific quality of life and antihistamine use measures after 8 weeks of treatment compared with sham acupuncture and with RM [rescue medication] alone, but the improvements may not be clinically significant.”

The antihistamine only group did not report significant changes in their allergy symptoms and still required the most medication. Researchers felt that the similarities between the true acupuncture group and the sham acupuncture group were due to patient expectations that acupuncture was going to be effective to relieve their symptoms. In other words – it was the placebo effect that caused both  acupuncture groups to report improvement in their allergies and their decreased need for antihistamines.

Acupuncture Research – Design Flaws?

Some possible reasons for the researchers conclusion that the results were potentially a ‘placebo’ effect could be in treatment design. It seems the sham group DID receive acupuncture – albeit at random areas. However, the researchers did not describe where the ‘random’ points were located.

Often in research studies, sham acupuncture groups receive treatment close to actual acupuncture points. Many acupuncture points are fairly large. Additionally, some points share similar functions and treat the same symptoms.  One more possibility to consider is that any treatment that uses an acupuncture needle on same meridian as the ‘true’ acupuncture point, WILL treat symptoms associated with the meridian.

In the Dr. Tan style of acupuncture that I use to treat my patients at Inner Light Wellness in Downingtown – there are 6 different meridians that can treat nasal allergies and congestion! You only have 12 major acupuncture meridians so the chances of hitting one that might affect allergies is 50/50. This means that ‘random’ acupuncture point selection puts ‘sham’ acupuncture into the realm of potential effect on allergy symptoms.

Acupuncture – Individualized Natural Allergy Treatment

“One size does NOT fit all”

In the follow up, the acupuncture patients’ symptom relief reportedly declined somewhat decreasing the statistical significance of the overall results. This could be due to the lack of ‘differential’ treatment of the underlying factors in a patient’s allergy and sinus symptoms. Unlike western medicine, acupuncturists don’t use the exact same acupuncture prescription for a symptom. Instead we are trained to consider the whole patient and their unique make up.

We consider ALL of your body’s symptoms, not just your allergy symptoms. When we view your symptoms as a whole, each patient has their own unique pattern that underlies their symptom. When we treat you as the individual that you are  – addressing your allergy symptoms AND the rest of your pattern- you get results! Acupuncture is not a cookie cutter approach. Your treatments are individually designed to treat you! Not just your symptoms.

You Decide!

Treatment design flaws are often the culprit behind fuzzy results when research is performed for acupuncture and a specific condition – usually causing researchers to conclude ‘placebo effect’.  Armed with this knowledge, you can weigh in on the relevance of  acupuncture research when deciding to pursue alternative allergy treatment this allergy season. How about patient testimonials? Are the thousands of the people who report that acupuncture treatment is relieving their allergies experiencing a placebo effect?

When reading acupuncture research that concludes placebo effect – consider this: if placebo effect were the reason for improvement, why didn’t you get the placebo effect from the treatments that your insurance covered? Now that you pay out of pocket for your acupuncture, you ‘believe’ it will work? Why not read the evidence of real live patients. Or schedule a visit and see for yourself!

Sources:  PubMed

Ann Intern Med. 2013 Feb 19;158(4):225-34. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-158-4-201302190-00002. Acupuncture in patients with seasonal allergic rhinitis: a randomized trial.

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