Imagine being so short of breath that you can barely walk half a block without coughing, wheezing, getting tight in the chest or feeling too fatigued to go on. For people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)—a progressive and incurable lung condition characterized by chronic bronchitis and/or emphysema—such symptoms are a sad fact of life, as are recurrent respiratory infections. Steroids help control symptoms but can have side effects…antibiotics fight infection but increase the risk for antibiotic resistance.

So it was welcome news when a recent study from Japan showed that acupuncture helps relieve symptoms and improve quality of life for COPD patients. Women especially should take note because, despite COPD’s reputation as a “man’s disease,” women account for the majority of US cases.

About the study: COPD patients were randomly assigned to one of two groups. Once a week for 12 weeks, one group received acupuncture at the standard “acupoints” traditionally used for lung problems. The other group got sham acupuncture at the same acupoints, performed with blunt needles that appeared to but did not actually enter the skin. All patients continued with their usual medication throughout the study.

Before treatment began, participants rated their degree of breathlessness after a six-minute walk test, using a scale of zero (breathing very well) to 10 (severely breathless). They also rated their typical level of breathlessness during daily activities…and underwent tests to measure blood oxygenation and other indicators of lung function. Tests were repeated at the end of the 12 weeks.

Results: Breathing scores and test results remained essentially the same for COPD patients who got sham acupuncture. But in the real acupuncture group, the average breathlessness score after the six-minute walk improved from 5.5 to 1.9…tests showed significant improvement in lung function…and patients reported markedly better quality of life. There were no significant adverse side effects. Researchers speculated that acupuncture helps relax the muscles involved in breathing.

Interested patients: It is important to note that the study participants received acupuncture as a complement to, not a replacement for, their usual COPD medication. To find a licensed acupuncturist (LAc) in your area, visit the Web site of the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine ( or the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (