Acupuncture offers new tool for asthma control

Chronic, acute sufferers benefit

Acupuncture was once thought to be akin to voodoo, but Western medicine is becoming more and more aware of the numerous medical benefits of the ancient Chinese art of placing needles in the body’s energy meridians to achieve a wide variety of effects.

From relief of postoperative pain and chemotherapy nausea and vomiting to treatment for addiction, headache, menstrual cramps, tennis elbow, fibromyalgia, myofascial pain, osteoarthritis, low back pain, and carpal tunnel syndrome, studies have shown acupuncture can be useful.

Now add asthma to that list.

The National Institutes for Health in Bethesda, MD, has reported in its consensus paper that "promising results" have been shown for all the above conditions, including asthma.

Recent foreign studies back up the NIH.

A British study reported in the September issue of Respiratory Medicine shows that acupuncture, real or sham, improves quality-of-life scores in patients with stable asthma.

That study showed no improvements in respiratory function after either real or sham acupuncture (needles placed on random points of unrecognized value on the chest wall), but with both real and sham acupuncture, there was a "significant improvement" in asthma quality of life scores and "a parallel reduction in the usage of bronchodilators.

A 1995 British study published in the Journal of Complementary Alternative Medicine showed acupuncture for patients with bronchial asthma "facilitate[d] reducing pharmacologic medication and is safe."

A 1995 study published in a Russian medical journal says acupuncture resulted in a reduction of bronchial hyper-reactivity.

Studies of the value of acupuncture are difficult, researchers agree; "placebo" acupuncture points are of little value because virtually any point on the body may have an effect on a condition.

Majid Ali, LAc (licensed acupuncturist), certified nutritionist, of M.M. VanBenSchoten Associates in Los Angeles, says acupuncture works by sending messages to the brain through energy meridians, telling the central nervous system to "fix whatever is wrong."

Doctors are unlikely to start sticking needles into folks, although some are learning about acupuncture through a variety of courses, including quickie weekend seminars that acupuncturists call dangerous.

"Many people don’t realize that legally, the scope of our practice is the same as a primary care physician," says Louis Kiwala, LAc, MTOM (master of traditional Oriental medicine), director of the New York Center for Acupuncture and Alternative Medicine and co-founder of the Institute for Advanced Pain Management in New York City.

Chinese medicine is a complex art, part science, part poetry, with its foundations in anecdotal evidence gathered over 2,500 years of practice, he says.

"Chinese medicine is more systemic than Western medicine," Kiwala says. "So in Chinese medicine, we would look at asthma as a an excess or an attack on an organ."

Lung problems could be hereditary or a matter of environment and lifestyle, Kiwala says.

"If the lungs are weak, then everything that goes wrong in the body manifests itself in the lungs," he says.

Consequently, he treats the entire system, and often asks questions that seem unrelated to the lungs in his quest to strengthen the weak organs.

Kiwala and his colleagues rarely prescribe acupuncture alone for most conditions, including asthma. Generally they will prescribe a combination of herbs to help the condition, so it is difficult to separate the effectiveness of each method.

"Western medicine is a step behind because they find a single chemical to treat a condition and that often results in side effects," Kiwala says. "We find a variety of chemicals in herbs that interact with one another to restore balance and provide checks on one another, therefore avoiding side effects."

Ali starts his asthma patients off with herbs and acupuncture, but tells them the process isn’t as fast and dramatic as Western medicine.

"We look for imbalances, internal and external," Ali says. "Some asthma is congenital, but most of it is environmental and we see a great deal of it here in L.A. with all the smog."

Ali says sinus infections are a major underlying cause of asthma and estimates half of his asthma patients have sinus triggers for asthma.

Another significant percentage of asthma patients suffer from chronic intestinal infection, Ali says.

When those conditions are treated, Ali says, patients find improvement or even the disappearance of their asthma.

Yet he recommends that asthma patients combine their inhaled steroids and bronchodilators with the alternative route.

"My goal is to get them off, but if you need them, you have to take them," says the acupuncturist, who works closely with many MDs, including neurologists, internists and psychiatrists and is working to bridge the gap between Western medicine and traditional Chinese medicine. Ali calls himself a "former asthmatic" who still has an inhaler, but hasn’t used it for several years. "I’d be stupid not to use it if I needed it," he says.

Roberta Lee, MD, a fellow at the program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona in Tucson, says she has found that in a handful of asthma patients experiencing mild bronchospasms she treated with acupuncture "over the course of one hour, they became less symptomatic."

Lee says an East-meets-West scenario will ultimately prove to be beneficial to patients, as does the NIH consensus report which notes that for asthma "acupuncture may be useful as an adjunct treatment or an acceptable alternative or be included in a comprehensive management program."

[Editor’s note: Majid Ali can be reached at (818) 344-9973; Louis Kiwala can be reached at (718) 377-3829, and Roberta Lee can be reached at (502) 626-6478.]