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National Institutes of Health • National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

NCCAM Clinical Digest

Asthma and Complementary Health Practices :
What the Science Says

April 2012

Researchers have examined the effectiveness of acupuncture, breathing exercises, and herbs and other dietary supplements for asthma; however, according to reviewers who have assessed the research, there is not enough evidence to support the use of any complementary health practices for the relief of asthma symptoms.

A 2011 study examined the placebo response in patients with chronic asthma and found that patients receiving placebo treatments (i.e., placebo inhaler and sham acupuncture) reported significant improvement in symptoms such as  chest tightness and perception of difficulty breathing. However, lung function did not improve in these patients. This is an important distinction because although the patients felt better, their risk for potentially serious or life-threatening consequences of untreated asthma was not lessened.

Acupuncture

  • There have been several studies that have looked at acupuncture—stimulation of specific points on the body with thin metal needles—for asthma. Although a few studies showed some reduction in medication use and improvements in symptoms and quality of life, the majority showed no difference between active acupuncture and sham acupuncture on asthma symptoms.
  • At this point, there is little evidence that acupuncture is an effective treatment for asthma.

Breathing Exercises

  • There has been renewed patient interest in breathing exercises or retraining to reduce hyperventilation, regulate breathing, and achieve a better balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the blood.
  • A review of seven randomized controlled trials found a trend toward improvement in symptoms with certain breathing techniques—the Papworth Method and Buteyko Breathing Technique—but not enough evidence for firm conclusions.

Herbs and Other Dietary Supplements

  • Some conventional treatments for asthma have their roots in herbal preparations: for example, the bronchodilator theophylline is found in tea leaves, and ephedrine (also a bronchodilator) is a compound in the traditional Chinese herb ma huang (ephedra).
  • Researchers have found little or no evidence of benefit for the relief of asthma symptoms when they studied other herbs and dietary supplements such as boswellia, tylophora indica, magnesium supplements, omega-3 fatty acids, Radix glycyrrhizae, vitamin C, and butterbur.

NCCAM Clinical Digest is a service of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, NIH, DHHS. NCCAM Clinical Digest, a monthly e-newsletter, offers evidence-based information on CAM, including scientific literature searches, summaries of NCCAM-funded research, fact sheets for patients, and more.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is dedicated to exploring complementary and alternative healing practices in the context of rigorous science, training CAM researchers, and disseminating authoritative information to the public and professionals. For additional information, call NCCAM's Clearinghouse toll-free at 1-888-644-6226, or visit the NCCAM Web site at nccam.nih.gov. NCCAM is 1 of 27 institutes and centers at the National Institutes of Health, the Federal focal point for medical research in the United States.

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