acupuncture for asthmaBy Sara Calabro

If you don’t have asthma, be grateful. Mainstream treatments for asthma present a minefield of worrisome side effects and mixed messages.

Confusion over the best way to address asthma—compounded by all-time-high asthma rates due to climate change—highlights the need for non-drug therapies that get at the root cause of the condition. Acupuncture can help.

The saga of asthma medication

A few years ago, the FDA recommended that two popular asthma drugs stop being used because of concerns about long-acting-beta-agonists (LABAs). At that time, combination therapies such as Advair were excluded from the warning because they contain an inhaled corticosteroid in addition to the LABAs.

But a little over a year later, the FDA came out saying that even the combo meds are dangerous. They can potentially make asthma worse and even result in death.

The FDA recommended that LABAs never be used alone and that the combination products be used “for the shortest time possible.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement—confirmed by the fact that one year after that, the FDA required manufacturers of the combination drugs to perform new clinical trials to compare the addition of LABAs to inhaled corticosteroids versus corticosteroids alone.

The scare over LABAs, on top of the abundant side effects of corticosteroids, has resulted in significant concern about the safety of popular asthma medications.

To boot, last month a study demonstrated no clear difference among various methods of dose adjustment for inhaled corticosteroids used by adults with asthma. Oh, and kids who use inhalers for asthma? Their growth may be permanently stunted.

An acupuncture approach to asthma

Asthma is on the World Health Organization’s list of conditions “for which the therapeutic effect of acupuncture has been shown but for which further proof is needed.”

The WHO semi-endorsement is nice, and it helps in getting the biomedical community to pay attention. But the truth is that acupuncture has been used safely and effectively for thousands of years to rectify the underlying imbalances that cause asthma symptoms such as shortness of breath, coughing and wheezing.

Asthma can be tackled with acupuncture in a variety of ways. Points are selected according to the patient’s unique combination of symptoms and the acupuncturist’s style of practice. However, there are some usual suspects.

Most acupuncture treatments for asthma include needling points on the Lung, Stomach, Kidney and/or Bladder meridians. Acupressure on many of these points, performed by the person with asthma or a caregiver, can be very effective as well.

Lung acupuncture points for asthma

The Lung system is critically important in asthma because it is the initial gateway through which all bodily functions initiate and transpire.

“The Lungs are the arena in which the Qi (meaning air, Natural Air Qi) outside the body meets the Qi inside the body,” says Ted Kaptchuk, in The Web That Has No Weaver. “The Lungs take in Natural Air Qi, propelling it downward. This is inhalation. The Lungs are then said to ‘disseminate’ and ‘make things go round,’ and expel ‘impure’ air (exhalation).”

In asthmatics, this natural flow of air fails to occur.

Acupuncture points along the Lung channel are selected based on accompanying symptoms. For example, Lung 1, located on the upper chest (not shown), is a good one for people whose asthma causes heaviness or pain in the chest. Lung 3 (see picture at left) might be selected if the person coughs up blood or has nosebleeds. Lung 5 (see picture at left) is better for an asthmatic whose cough is phlegmy.

Stomach acupuncture points for asthma

When the Stomach system is disturbed, it is said to be energetically “rebellious.” In other words, things that are meant to go down go up, and vice versa.

Rebellious Stomach Qi disrupts the intended downward motion of air that’s taken in through the Lungs, making it difficult to breathe normally. Stomach imbalances also can lead to dampness or phlegm in the Lungs, causing congestion and frequent cough.

A great point for overall regulation of the Stomach system is Stomach 36.

In addition, a section of points along the Stomach meridian is located on the chest, directly over the lungs. This is considered a local approach to relieving asthma symptoms. These points—Stomach 13-16—are found in a vertical line between the collar bone and the nipple (see bilateral dark dots in picture above).

Kidney acupuncture points for asthma

Like Stomach, the Kidney meridian travels along the chest, so it locally addresses breathing problems. The asthma-related Kidney points—Kidney 22-27—are at a similar level to the Stomach points mentioned above, about two inches closer to the midline of the chest.

In addition, the Kidney system aids the Lung system in moving things downward—the Kidneys are said to grasp the Lung Qi. Bolstering the Kidneys can improve this function, leading to better airflow.

A good go-to for strengthening the Kidneys is the channel’s source point, Kidney 3 (see picture above).

Back acupuncture points for asthma

On the back of the body, the Bladder meridian runs along the outside the spine and contains many points on the upper back, over the lungs. They are very effective for relieving asthma symptoms, so find an acupuncturist (or a buddy, if you’re going the acupressure route) because these are difficult to reach on your own.

Certain Bladder points, known as Back Shu points, are associated with specific organ systems. Bladder 13, the Lung Back Shu point, is commonly called upon for treating asthma.

Bladder 13 is located about an inch-and-a-half outside the spine, at the level of the third thoracic vertebra. In addition to Bladder 13, any Bladder points along the upper back can benefit asthma symptoms.

Another acupuncture point on the back, Dingchuan, is specifically indicated for asthma. Dingchuan is considered an extra point, meaning it does not correspond with any specific acupuncture meridian.

Dingchuan is located on the upper back, about a half-inch outside the spine, so roughly one inch closer to the spine than Bladder 13 (see picture at left). The point usually is needled bilaterally, on both sides of the spine.

As an alternative or supplement to medication, acupuncture can alleviate some of the safety concerns associated with prolonged use of asthma drugs.

Photo by Mary Marsiglio; acupuncture point infographics from A Manual of Acupuncture

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