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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Acupuncture may help improve seasonal allergy symptoms in some people with runny noses and watery eyes, according to a new study - but the effect seems to be small.
Researchers found 71 percent of people reported an improvement in their allergies after eight weeks of acupuncture. But so did 56 percent of allergy sufferers who were treated with sham acupuncture instead as a comparison.
"It works, but there are a couple of caveats (for) people who might think of using it," said Dr. Harold Nelson, who treats allergies at National Jewish Health in Denver, Colorado.
For example, "This is pretty invasive, particularly when you compare it to something like spraying a nasal steroid in your nose once a morning," he told Reuters Health. It's also more time consuming, and requires finding a qualified, licensed acupuncturist, he noted.
"I wouldn't personally go that route," he said.
Previous studies have conflicted on whether acupuncture may help relieve runny noses and other seasonal allergy symptoms, researchers wrote Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
Led by Dr. Benno Brinkhaus from Charite-University Medical Center in Berlin, Germany, they randomly assigned 422 people with seasonal allergies to receive real or sham acupuncture or to only take antihistamines as needed.
After eight weeks and 12 treatment sessions, average allergy symptom scores dropped among people in the acupuncture group from 2.7 to 1.7 points on a 0-to-6 scale, where lower scores indicate fewer symptoms.
Among patients treated with sham acupuncture, symptom scores improved from 2.3 to 1.8 points, and from 2.5 to 2.2 in the medication-only group.
However, by another eight weeks after treatment ended, there was no longer any difference in the degree of symptom improvement between groups.
People with allergies would likely notice about a half-point change on the symptom scale in their daily lives, the researchers said - the difference between the real and sham acupuncture groups after eight weeks in the current study.
Acupuncture is generally considered safe, they noted. A typical session runs for about $100 and is often not covered by health insurance.
Researchers aren't sure why it might help people with seasonal allergies, other than its possible beneficial effect on the immune system.
Nelson, who wasn't involved in the new study, said antihistamines might not have been the best drug comparison for acupuncture - since daily use of nasal steroids is better at preventing symptoms.
For people with allergies, "I would suggest they use conventional medication on a daily basis, and I certainly prefer nasal steroids over antihistamines," he said.
But medication doesn't work perfectly for everyone, the researchers pointed out.
"We mostly saw patients in our outpatient practice who have had this disease for years," Brinkhaus told Reuters Health. "They are not very happy taking the medications every day, and some of them suffer from side effects of medications."
For those people, acupuncture could be a good add-on option, said Brinkhaus, an acupuncturist and internal medicine doctor.
"It's not an alternative. We use it firstly as some sort of complementary medicine. If the acupuncture has good results, we can reduce the anti-allergic medication," he said.
Dr. Li-Xing Man, who treats sinus and nasal diseases at the University of Rochester Medical Center, New York, said it can be challenging to find an experienced acupuncture practitioner in some parts of the U.S. And based on this study, "it's hard to know whether it's actually helpful."
Still, he told Reuters Health, there doesn't seem to be much harm in giving acupuncture a try.
"It may even be that acupuncture makes you feel better in general, and that's reflected in these questionnaires," said Man, who wasn't part of the research team. "If you find a good practitioner of acupuncture and you can afford it, then go for it."
SOURCE: bit.ly/MnBiCA Annals of Internal Medicine, online February 18, 2013.