Can Acupuncture Really Relieve Allergy Symptoms?

Practiced for thousands of years, predominantly in Asian countries, acupuncture is one of the oldest healing practices in the world. In the United States, some practitioners incorporate this tradition of healing and categorize it as complementary or alternative medicine.

Seasonal change is often a time of discomfort for many allergy sufferers who experience common symptoms such as a runny nose or itchy eyes. Many patients turn to antihistamines for relief and some seek alternative treatment in the form of acupuncture when antihistamines fail. Many patients claim acupuncture helps to relieve some symptoms associated with seasonal allergies, although it has never been scientifically proven.  

To learn more about the effects of acupuncture on seasonal allergies, researchers from Charité University Medical Center and German Red Cross Hospital Westend, Berlin, Germany conducted a randomized trial. The study was published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine in conjunction with various other universities and hospitals. Forty-six specialized doctors from six hospital clinics and 32 outpatient, private clinics were involved in the study.

The researchers conducted examinations on 422 people who were prone to allergic reactions to pollen and other air contaminants. The participants' symptoms and medication dosage were reported before they were divided into three groups. One group received a total of 12 acupuncture treatments along with antihistamine medication. Another group was given 12 "fake" acupuncture treatments in which needles were placed at random points all over the body, without respect to acupuncture practice. Antihistamines also were taken as needed by this group. The final group took only antihistamines to treat their allergy symptoms.

Researchers questioned the participants after two months about their symptoms and medication amounts used. A greater improvement in allergy symptoms was reported from the participants who received real acupuncture treatments. It was also found that their group used less antihistamine medication in comparison to the two other groups. The group that received the fake acupuncture treatment reported symptom relief as well, suggesting that a placebo effect was the cause for some of the improvements reported. After four months of follow-up, the variation between the groups was not as similar. This supported the researchers' speculations that the placebo group patients were expecting the acupuncture to help them, which influenced their reports of improved symptoms.

"The effectiveness of acupuncture for [seasonal allergies] compared with other antiallergic interventions and the possible underlying mechanisms of any effect, including context effects, need to be addressed in further research," said the authors of the study.

Other participating researchers in the study came from University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland; Technical University of Munich, Helmholtz Center Munich and International Society for Chinese Medicine, Munich, Germany; Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts and University Medical Center Eppendorf, Hamburg, Germany.

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