Acupuncture for Allergies

acupuncture

 

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Acupuncture has come to be a respected alternative treatment for a range of medical issues, from anxiety to fibromyalgia to weight loss. There's evidence it also may be helpful for alleviating symptoms and improving the quality of life for people who have allergies.

In fact, guidelines for using acupuncture for allergies are included in some guidelines for physicians. For example, the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery Foundation recommends doctors offer acupuncture to patients seeking nonpharmacological treatments for allergies or refer them to an acupuncture provider.

What Is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practice in which hair-thin needles are inserted into the body at specific points believed to be connected to each other by a network of energy lines called meridians. The meridians serve as a pathway along which qi (pronounced "chee"), or vital life energy, flows.

According to TCM, each meridian is associated with a different system in the body. Therefore the placement of needles is based on targeting the organs associated with the condition being treated.

When acupuncture is used for allergies, several meridians located on the front of the body may be targeted, including the lungs, colon, stomach, and spleen. These meridians are believed to circulate defensive qi, a type of energy linked to immunity. A backup or a deficiency of defensive qi cause typical allergy symptoms such as swelling, watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing, allergic eczema, and conjunctivitis. The idea is that stimulating these points will restore defensive qi and relieve symptoms.

There are several scientific theories for how acupuncture works. One holds that the practice works directly on nerve fibers, influencing messages to the brain or influencing the autonomic nervous system and transmission of certain signals within the body, including the immune system.

Another hypothesis is that acupuncture influences certain activities of cells, particularly via the transport, breakdown, and clearance of “bioactive mediators.” These actions, along with the claimed effect of inhibiting an over-active immune system, are thought to decrease inflammatory diseases such as allergic rhinitis, also known as hay fever, in which when the inside of the nose becomes inflamed and swollen after breathing in an allergen.

Related: The Benefits and Side Effects of Acupuncture

What the Research Says

The results of studies looking at the effectiveness of acupuncture for allergies have been mixed. Even so, several reviews and meta-analyses suggest it may be helpful for allergic rhinitis.

A 2015 review of 13 randomized-control studies with more than 2,000 participants found those who received acupuncture had a significant reduction in nasal symptoms, the need to take medication, and serum immunoglobulin E (IgE)—antibodies that can be overproduced in response to allergens—than did people who did not receive acupuncture. Treated individuals also had higher quality-of-life scores.

Similarly, another 2015 review concluded there have been high-quality randomized controlled trials that demonstrate efficacy for acupuncture in the treatment of seasonal and perennial allergic rhinitis. It also found that smaller studies show some preliminary benefit of acupuncture when compared with antihistamines, but more research on this is needed.

Interesting Fact

When there is a placebo treatment group in acupuncture studies, this placebo treatment is called “sham acupuncture” and involves inserting needles in areas of the body that are not active sites for acupuncture.

While the findings of such research reviews are promising, additional high-quality studies are needed to confirm that acupuncture is truly an effective treatment for allergies.

Treating Allergies with Acupuncture

Some people with allergies who choose acupuncture are seeking alternatives to conventional treatment such as oral medications, nasal sprays, and immunotherapy. Others are looking for ways to enhance the effectiveness of medications the already are taking, such as antihistamines or nasal sprays, or shorten how long or how frequently they use them.

In both cases, the initial treatment of acupuncture for allergies typically involves weekly or twice-weekly appointments over several weeks or months, depending on the severity of symptoms. This may be followed by annual booster treatments or more on an as-needed basis.

Acupuncture generally is considered safe when administered by a well-trained practitioner. Most states require a license, certification, or registration to practice acupuncture but requirements vary from state to state. 

Look for a practitioner who is certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine or a medical doctor who offers acupuncture. The American Academy of Medical Acupuncture has a list of acupuncturists who are also medical doctors.

Potential side effects of improperly administered acupuncture can be serious, though, and range from infections, punctured organs, collapsed lungs, and injury to the central nervous system. Before you try acupuncture to treat allergy symptoms, discuss your interest with your primary care doctor, allergist, or an integrative medicine specialist to make sure it's a safe and viable option for you and how best to integrate it into your overall allergy care.

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