Acupuncture already helps to relieve pain in some patients, and the latest study hints that it might relieve sneezing and itchy eyes as well.
Most patients plagued with sniffles brought on by seasonal allergies turn to antihistamines for relief, but when they don't get relief, some opt for alternative treatments like acupuncture, in which tiny needles inserted just under the skin at specific points in the body are used to reduce certain symptoms.
In a study published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers examined 422 people who tested positive for pollen allergies and had allergic nasal symptoms such as a runny nose. The participants reported their symptoms as well as what medication and doses they used to treat them.
The researchers then divided them into three groups; one received 12 acupuncture treatments and took antihistamines as needed, a second group received 12 fake acupuncture treatments (needles placed at random, non-meaningful points in the body) and took antihistamines as needed, while the final group only took antihistamines for symptoms.
After two months, the researchers asked the patients about their symptoms and how much medication they used. The participants who received the real acupuncture treatments with their antihistamines showed a greater improvement in their allergy symptoms and less use of antihistamines compared to the other groups.
But the fact that even the participants receiving the sham acupuncture therapy reported some relief of their symptoms suggests that a strong placebo effect may be responsible for at least part of the improvement.
That possibility was supported by the fact that after four months of follow-up, the difference between the groups was less pronounced. The researchers speculate that the patients' expectations of how much the acupuncture might help them could have influenced their reports of improved symptoms.
But if the treatments are providing some type of relief, then acupuncture's potential role in treating allergies should be investigated further, the authors say. "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," they write in the study.
Read more: Acupuncture for allergies