Breathe in. Breathe out.

Get out of bed.

Take a walk around the block.

These three things may seem oh-so-simple to do, but if you suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), it’s pretty darn tough to do them without getting winded and/or feeling weak.

While you can take drugs to ease your symptoms, they may not do enough.

You might still find yourself wheezing and/or unable to get around as easily as you once did.

But there’s good news. A certain kind of ancient Chinese medicine may help you breath better and move around more, according to a new Japanese study.


Want to know which kind of ancient Chinese medicine was studied? It was good old acupuncture, which is, of course, the practice of inserting needles into the skin at different points along the body. To test whether acupuncture is effective, scientists often compare it with “sham” acupuncture, which uses blunt-ended needles made to look exactly like real needles, but which telescope back into place without penetrating the skin. And that’s how the researchers tested the effectiveness of acupuncture on COPD in this study.

Results: COPD patients receiving real acupuncture, rather than sham, experienced startling improvements. By the end of the three-month study, their level of breathlessness was more than cut in half, and they increased their average walking distance by nearly 20%. In contrast, patients receiving sham acupuncture had no significant changes in either measurement. It’s important to note that while the patients in the study were receiving either real or sham acupuncture, they continued taking whatever COPD medications they were on.

Researchers concluded that real acupuncture probably eased breathing for COPD patients by relaxing muscles around the rib cage, which in turn allowed patients to exert themselves more and walk farther. Talk about a win-win situation, since being able to exercise more will, in turn, improve lung function even further!


Len Horovitz, MD, a pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told me that he encourages his COPD patients to try acupuncture as long as they don’t abandon their conventional medications. Since each patient might experience a different level of COPD relief with acupuncture, he explained, he wouldn’t want to remove the “safety net” of drugs that has helped them previously. If acupuncture were to continue to work well in the long term, then, in theory, COPD patients might be able to either reduce or eliminate their medications, said Dr. Horovitz, but he has yet to treat such a person.

If you’re interested in trying acupuncture to treat COPD, Charles Kim, MD, a physiatrist and medical acupuncturist practicing in New York City, suggested checking out the site of the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, which can help match you with a qualified practitioner if you enter your state and zip code. You can also contact your local hospital or medical center.

The cost of acupuncture varies widely—topping off at around $250 to $300 per session, Dr. Kim said—depending on your location and whether you choose individual or group treatments. Medicare and most health insurers don’t cover acupuncture for COPD, said Dr. Kim, but check your plan to find out.