Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a group of respiratory conditions that include emphysema and chronic bronchitis. It can cause symptoms such as:

  • shortness of breath
  • frequent respiratory infections
  • chronic cough

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that COPD is the third leading cause of death worldwide.

Currently, there’s no cure for COPD. Medications and complementary treatments such as acupuncture for COPD may help ease some symptoms and slow its progression.

Acupuncture is a therapy that has roots in traditional Chinese medicine. It involves inserting thin needles into specific parts of your body. It is sometimes used to help treat conditions such as chronic pain and migraine headaches.

Some research suggests that acupuncture may be an effective treatment for COPD alongside conventional treatments, but many of these studies vary in quality.

Read on to learn how acupuncture could be useful for COPD.

Some studies suggest that acupuncture may be an effective supportive treatment for COPD. However, these studies and their results vary widely.

More research is needed to fully understand whether acupuncture can help respiratory conditions and, if so, to what extent.

What have existing studies found about acupuncture and COPD?

Many reviews of studies have been published examining the effectiveness of treating COPD with acupuncture.

However, the results of these studies are not completely consistent, according to a 2021 overview of these research reviews. This inconsistency is largely due to the poor quality of the studies reviewed.

It’s difficult to perform double-blind studies examining the effectiveness of acupuncture because people know they’re having needles put in their skin. To get around this, researchers perform “sham acupuncture” on their control group, where needles are inserted into the skin but not in the same way as traditional acupuncture.

What types of studies are the highest quality?

Double-blind randomized controlled trials are considered the highest quality studies. In these studies, people are randomly assigned to two groups. One group receives the intervention and the other receives a placebo. Double-blind means neither the people in the study nor the researchers know who is in which group.

Even the most well-designed studies come with a risk of error. Reviews of studies, or studies that examine the results of multiple studies, are considered even higher quality scientific evidence than randomized controls.

Reviews of studies make conclusions based on whether results are consistent and repeatable between studies.

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A 2022 review of studies found evidence that sham acupuncture might have similar effects on the body as real acupuncture. If this is the case, it could influence the results of studies examining the effect of acupuncture on treating COPD or other conditions.

In a 2021 review of studies, researchers found that nine previous reviews of studies were of high enough quality for evaluation. Of the nine studies, two were found to be low quality and seven were critically low quality.

One of the two low quality reviews of studies (available only in Chinese) analyzed by the researchers found that acupuncture may improve the function of the immune system but doesn’t improve lung function in people with COPD.

One of the critically low quality reviews was a 2019 review of studies. In the review, researchers looked at 798 participants from 12 studies. They found evidence that acupuncture is an effective non-drug treatment for improving the quality of life for people with COPD.


Researchers have concluded that acupuncture appears to be effective for treating COPD, but the credibility of available research is low due to poor quality and small sample sizes.

Acupuncture is thought to manage how your body makes pro-inflammatory molecules called cytokines, according to 2022 research.

Reducing levels of cytokines could theoretically reduce inflammation in your respiratory tract, which may help relieve COPD symptoms such as shortness of breath, 2016 research suggests.

According to the 2021 research review mentioned earlier, some studies have also found evidence that acupuncture may improve:

  • exercise capacity
  • immune function
  • quality of life

In the United States, acupuncture is considered a complementary treatment for COPD. Complementary treatments are meant to support standard treatments but not replace them.

Standard treatments for COPD include:

  • receiving oxygen therapy
  • quitting smoking
  • taking medications such as:
    • inhaled bronchodilators
    • corticosteroids
    • phosphodiesterase-5 inhibitors
    • theophylline
    • antibiotics and antivirals to treat infections
  • getting a lung transplant when other treatments fail

If you decide to try acupuncture to treat COPD, it’s important to also continue taking any prescribed medications.

Learn more about medications to treat COPD.

Although research is limited in support of acupuncture, it’s generally considered a low risk therapy. The most common side effects are:

  • bleeding
  • bruising
  • soreness

Acupuncture needles are very thin and unlikely to cause major tissue damage. Very rarely, a needle can break and potentially damage an organ.

Most practitioners do not recommend acupuncture if you have an active infection that could spread, according to 2021 research.

Here are some questions you may want to ask your doctor or practitioner before starting acupuncture:

  • Where will the needles go?
  • How many treatments will I need?
  • How many times per week do I need treatment?
  • Where can I find a licensed practitioner?
  • What certification does a practitioner need in my state?
  • Do I need to do anything to prepare for my appointment?
  • Do I need to do anything after my acupuncture session?
  • How long until I can see results?

Many different types of medical professionals perform acupuncture, including:

  • licensed acupuncturists
  • medical doctors (MD)
  • osteopaths (DO)
  • chiropractors
  • physiotherapists

For a complicated condition such as COPD, make sure your practitioner has a medical acupuncture license or is board certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.

These practitioners are usually MDs, DOs, and LAcs (licensed acupuncturists) and have completed hundreds or thousands of hours of training. The American Medical Association supports the medical use of acupuncture only by these highly trained professionals.

Licensing requirements vary by state, but most states require a license to practice acupuncture, and California has its own acupuncture licensing exam.

You can find a licensed acupuncturist in your area through the American Society of Acupuncturists website. Keep in mind that physical therapists and chiropractors usually treat only musculoskeletal issues. Be sure to find a practitioner who has experience treating respiratory conditions and COPD.

COPD is a group of respiratory diseases that includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Some research suggests that acupuncture may be an effective complementary treatment for COPD. However, current research is not conclusive, and more high quality studies are needed.

Many recently available studies are of poor quality, so it’s difficult to draw firm conclusions. Despite limited evidence of effectiveness, acupuncture is generally very safe and has a low risk of complications for COPD.