How Can Acupuncture Fix Asthma?







Brian Carter, acupuncturist, herbalist, and author

How Can Acupuncture Fix Asthma?
By Brian Benjamin Carter, MSci, LAc

Brian is the founder of the Pulse of Oriental Medicine. He teaches at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine and maintains a private acupuncture and herbal practice in San Diego, California, and is the author of Powerful Body, Peaceful Mind: How to Heal Yourself with Foods, Herbs, and Acupressure.

I first started seeing a patient for exercise-induced asthma in December 2003. At first, she was having trouble catching her breath while doing bikram yoga, which as you may know is performed in very, very hot rooms. More recently, she sometimes felt short of breath even when not exercising.

After our first acupuncture treatment, she noticed an improvement in her breathing. After several treatments, the problem was gone. She was baffled by how exactly acupuncture changed her physiology, so I promised her I'd look into the research and given her a scientific explanation. I'd already given her the Chinese medicine explanation, but, in my experience, people feel more satisfied with research-based answers - patients tell me that those answers make more sense to them.

Bear in mind that the 1996 National Institutes of Health Consensus Statement on Acupuncture, which was quite conservative, found the effective treatment of asthma by acupuncture to be one of the few for which evidence was strong. So we shouldn't be surprised to find good research on it, nor do we need to reinvent the wheel and examine the quality and methodology of every study. Plus, since researchers have already determined that acupuncture improves asthma, my review of the literature was directed not at effectiveness, but the mechanisms by which acupuncture does it.

What's the Cause of Asthma?

The first thing I wanted to clarify was what biological mechanisms are involved in asthma - that is, what processes go on inside the body that lead to the experience of shortness of breath and wheezing? Once I found this information, I could correlate it with the effects of acupuncture for asthma.
The research reviews (1) said abnormal immune system activity is responsible for the:

  1. bronchial airway inflammation,
  2. increased mucus production, and
  3. airway hyper-responsiveness…

…that lead to wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath (asthma). This abnormal immune activity is cause by and related to factors such as genetics, viruses, fungi, heavy metals, nutrition, and pollution. I'll relate the research below to the 3 causes listed above.

Join the PulseMed mailing list

What Does Acupuncture do to the Processes of asthma?

  • A 2001 placebo-controlled study of acupuncture for 192 people with bronchial asthma found that acupuncture improves bronchial permeability.
  • Another placebo-controlled study (2) investigated the immunologic effects of acupuncture on patients with allergic asthma, and found a 79% improvement in the well being of the acupuncture group (compared to 47% in the control group), certain beneficial immune factors increased, other immune factors that cause the problems of asthma decreased, and eosinophils (immune factors that indicate allergic reactions) decreased. In other words, acupuncture countered the allergic asthma process. This relates to causes #1 and #3 above.
  • An older 1989 study (3) discussed changes from acupuncture observed in 30 bronchial asthma patients including bronchiodilation, decrease in intrapulmonary resistance, shifts in the regulation of breathing and the activity of the muscles that control breathing. This relates to causes #1 and #3 above.
  • Another study (4) of 32 patients with both asthma and rheumatoid arthritis monitored the effects of acupuncture on the immunoglobulins, and found that it changed them. This relates to cause #1 above.
  • In 1995, acupuncture on 94 patients with bronchial asthma (5) caused nervous system, immune system, and metabolism changes that resulted in a reduction of the sensitivity and reactivity of the bronchioles. In other words, it made the smaller airways of the lung less likely to react to the factors that lead to asthma. This relates to causes #1 and #3 above.
  • Also in 1995, a study (6) of acupuncture on patients with allergic asthma demonstrated a reduction in IgA levels. IgA is an immunoglobulin involved in allergic reactions. Thus, this may be another explanation of how acupuncture reduces allergic responses. This relates to cause #1 above.

As you can see, this research, which is likely not an exhaustive review of all the acupuncture and asthma studies, clearly shows how acupuncture regulates 2 of the 3 biological mechanisms of asthma.


  1. Miller AL. The etiologies, pathophysiology, and alternative/complementary treatment of asthma. Altern Med Rev. 2001 Feb;6(1):20-47.
  2. Joos S, Schott C, Zou H, Daniel V, Martin E. Immunomodulatory effects of acupuncture in the treatment of allergic asthma: a randomized controlled study. J Altern Complement Med. 2000 Dec;6(6):519-25.
  3. Strukov AV. [Effect of acupuncture on respiratory mechanisms in patients with bronchial asthma] Ter Arkh. 1989;61(3):46-50.
  4. Guan Z, Zhang J. Effects of acupuncture on immunoglobulins in patients with asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. J Tradit Chin Med. 1995 Jun;15(2):102-5.
  5. Aleksandrova RA, Nemtsov VI, Lan' PL, Sinitsina TM, Verkhovskaia VA, Goncharova VA, Bondarenko VL, Kozlov VG, Zagustina NA. [An analysis of the acupuncture treatment results in bronchial asthma patients] Vopr Kurortol Fizioter Lech Fiz Kult. 1995 May-Jun;(3):10-2.
  6. Yang Y, Chen H, Zhao C, Wang R. [Studies on regulatory effects of acupuncture on mucosal secretory IgA in patients with allergic asthma] Zhen Ci Yan Jiu. 1995;20(2):68-70.
About The PULSE
All information herein provided is for educational use only and not meant to substitute for the advice of appropriate local experts and authorities.

Copyright 1999-2074, Pulse Media International, Brian Carter, MSci, LAc, Editor