Acupuncture is a treatment developed by traditional Chinese medical practitioners to treat a wide range of health problems. Once only used in Eastern cultures, it has gradually gained respect and acceptance by medical professionals in the West. Acupuncture is now commonly used to treat everything from pain to nausea following surgery. Lesser-known uses, such as the treatment of allergies, are also gaining traction.

Acupuncture is an ancient practice, possibly dating to prehistory in what is now China. It is based on the belief that life energy, called qi (pronounced “chee”), flows throughout the body along pathways called meridians. By inserting thin needles at specific points, called “acupuncture points,” skilled practitioners seek to restore the flow of energy to eliminate pain and disease.

Western medicine doesn’t accept the traditional explanation of acupuncture’s mechanism of action. No evidence that meridians exist has ever been documented by modern science. But, despite ongoing questions regarding how it works, science has shown that, at least in some instances, it does work. Pain relief is one example. Western-style, controlled clinical trials have shown that acupuncture can relieve pain—sometimes better than drugs—in conditions such as chronic lower back pain, migraines, neck pain, and post-operative pain.

Acupuncture and Allergies

What about acupuncture for the treatment of allergies? Preliminary research indicates that acupuncture may actually help allergy symptoms. A recent study conducted in South Korea examined the effectiveness of acupuncture for the treatment of chronic rhinosinusitis and allergic rhinitis.

Chronic rhinosinusitis is a condition characterized by inflammation of the moist tissues of the nasal passages and sinuses, which lasts for three months or more. It is associated with perennial allergies, and can sometimes be complicated by allergic rhinitis, or “hay fever,” which is generally associated with seasonal inhalant allergies, triggered by exposure to allergens such as grass or tree pollens.

The South Korean study used patients suffering from both of these conditions. For five weeks, subjects submitted to two 20-minute acupuncture treatments, administered by experienced traditional medical doctors with at least seven years of acupuncture experience. Patients’ symptoms and quality-of-life scores were assessed at the beginning of the trial, at its end, and again eight weeks after the beginning of the trial.

Patients experienced statistically significant reductions in symptoms at five and eight weeks after the beginning of the trial. This study didn’t use controls, and the number of subjects, at 19, was small, but the investigators concluded that acupuncture was “clinically effective”. They also noted that additional larger, controlled trials are warranted. Fortunately, German researchers have taken up the challenge.

Results aren’t yet available, but researchers at University Medical Center in Berlin have begun a large, multi-center controlled trial of the effectiveness of acupuncture for the treatment of seasonal allergic rhinitis. This study, which will eventually evaluate 400 patients, should provide a much clearer picture of acupuncture’s potential role in the treatment of allergies.

Until those results are available, we’ll have to rely on existing data.

In a recent review of published trials, researchers concluded that there is some evidence to support the claim that acupuncture is beneficial and cost-effective as an additional treatment for seasonal allergic rhinitis. But at this time, there is insufficient evidence to conclude that acupuncture is effective as a stand-alone treatment, the scientists wrote. This conclusion echoes what other scientists—who have previously reviewed the existing evidence—have concluded: while promising, present evidence is mixed, at best.