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Evaluation of needle acupuncture actions on clinical improvement, pulmonary functions, and cytokines of asthmatic children

Mohamed, Nagwa H.a; Abdel Meguid, Iman E.b; Shaaban, Hala H.b; Ahmed Kamel, Inas M.a

doi: 10.1097/01.MJX.0000430655.82176.CC

Objective: Bronchial asthma is one of the most common illnesses in children. The chronicity of bronchial asthma and fear of steroid therapy cause many patients to seek alternative methods of treatment such as acupuncture.

Methods: Twelve acupuncture sessions were performed for 30 children with asthma during their conventional medical treatment at certain points according to traditional Chinese medicine for 1 month. Pulmonary functions, interleukin-6, immunoglobulin E, and eosinophilic count were measured before and after the sessions. Clinical grading and medications used before and after the acupuncture sessions were also evaluated.

Results: There were significant improvements in pulmonary functions: vital capacity% (P<0.001), forced vital capacity% (P<0.001), forced expiratory volume (FEV)1% (P<0.001), forced expiratory flow (FEF)25–75% (P<0.001), peaked expiratory flow% (P<0.001), FEF25% (P<0.001), FEF50% (P<0.001), and FEF75% (P<0.001). There were significant decreases in all laboratory investigations. However, there were improvements in the clinical condition of the patients and there was also a decrease in the medications used.

Conclusion: Acupuncture improves pulmonary functions of children with bronchial asthma; it decreases the serum levels of eosinophilic count and cytokines.

aDepartment of Researches and Application of Complementary Medicine, National Research Centre

bDepartment of Pediatrics, Cairo University, Cairo, Egypt

Correspondence to Nagwa H. Mohamed, PhD, Department of Researches and Applications of Complementary Medicine, National Research Centre, El-Bohouth Street, Dokki, PO Box 2311, 12622 Cairo, Egypt Tel: +20 122 221 4290; fax: +20 233 70931; e-mail:

Received March 15, 2013

Accepted April 29, 2013

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Asthma review


Asthma is the most common chronic disease of childhood. It is a chronic inflammatory disorder of the airways characterized by an obstruction of airflow, which may be reversed completely or partially with or without specific therapy 1.

Airway inflammation is the result of interactions between various cells, cellular elements, and cytokines in susceptible individuals 2.

In Egypt, the prevalence of asthma is higher in 5–10-year-old students (13%) compared with 11–15-year-old students (10%) 3.

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Pathophysiology and pathogenesis of asthma

Interactions between environmental and genetic factors result in airway inflammation, which limits airflow and leads to bronchospasm, mucosal edema, and mucus plugs.

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Interleukin-6 (IL-6) is a cytokine that acts both as a proinflammatory and as an anti-inflammatory cytokine. It is secreted by T cells and macrophages to stimulate immune response to trauma, especially burns or other tissue damage, leading to inflammation. In terms of host response to a foreign pathogen 4, studies using IL-6 suggest that IL-6 protects against airway inflammation, whereas studies using neutralizing antibodies suggest that IL-6 promotes allergic airway inflammation 5.

Elevation of IL-6 in the allergic asthmatic airway is independent of inflammation but is associated with loss of central airway function 6.

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Immunoglobulin E (total and specific)

Total serum immunoglobulin E (IgE) is a risk factor for both the development of and disease severity in asthma. The production of IgE is controlled by a complex regulatory process that ultimately involves isotype class switching by mononuclear B lymphocytes, a CD4+ T-cell-dependent process 7. It has been reported that parenchyma of inflamed lungs has an airway antigen challenge and these contain IgG-producing and IgE-producing plasma cells, shown to produce the corresponding isotypes, when isolated from the lungs and then cultured in vitro. Locally produced IgE as well as circulating IgE are likely to sensitize mast cells in the airways 8.

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Clinical grading of asthma


The management of asthma is based on four principles (Table 1):

Control of symptoms, including nocturnal symptoms and those related to exercise.

Prevention of exacerbations and need for rescue medication.

Achievement of the best possible lung function [forced expiratory volume (FEV)1 and/or peaked expiratory flow rate (PEFR)>80%)].

Minimize side effects.

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Drug treatment

Long-term medications include the following:

Long-acting β2-agonists.

Inhaled corticosteroids is, used in patients with persistent asthma 10.

Leukotriene receptor antagonists to reduce the symptoms of asthma 11.

Cromolyn/nedocromil sodium, which is a mast cell stabilizer used extensively for asthma prophylaxis 12.

Immunomodulators: such as omalizumab (anti-IgE) for subcutaneous use for long-term control and prevention of symptoms in adults (≥12 years old) who have moderate or severe persistent allergic asthma 13.

Theophylline, which is a long-acting β2-agonist for long-term prevention of symptoms 14.

Quick relievers include the following:

Short-acting β2-agonists, used as initial therapy in children with asthma 15.

Ipratropium bromide, which is not used frequently 16.

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There has been an increase in the use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) as a healthcare option in recent years worldwide. According to the WHO, more than three-quarters of the world’s population rely on CAM for healthcare 17.

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Effect of acupuncture in bronchial asthma


Acupuncture stimulates the release of β endorphin, which, coupled with the release of adrenocorticotrophic hormone, acts on the adrenal cortex to stimulate the release of cortisol, inducing another possible anti-inflammatory effect 18.

It also exerts a vasodilative effect caused by the release of calcitonin gene-related peptide upon stimulation of nerve fibers 19.

The release of anti-inflammatory cytokines could be induced from lymphocytes and secondary activating cells, such as macrophages 20.

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Direct bronchodilation effect of acupuncture

Asthmatic patients showed an immediate bronchodilating response of FEV1 after acupuncture, and a similar bronchodilator response was reproducible with repeated acupuncture, and it leads to a short-term reduction in airway resistance 21.

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Aim of the work

The aim of our work is to assess the effect of traditional Chinese acupuncture in children with bronchial asthma on clinical conditions, pulmonary function (vital capacity (VC)%, forced vital capacity (FVC)%, FEV1%, forced expiratory flow (FEF)25–75%, PEF%, FEF25%, FEF50%, and FEF75%), eosinophilic count, IgE, and IL-6.

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Patients and methods

This was a clinical trial conducted at the acupuncture clinic of the medical service unit at the national research centre of Egypt during the period from October 2010 to April 2011 on 30 children with chronic bronchial asthma who were followed up for their asthma in the outpatient clinic of asthma and allergy for children in the Abu-Elrish hospital, pediatric hospital of Cairo University.

All the patients had an established clinical history of asthma (partially controlled and uncontrolled asthma according to the GINA criteria), and they ranged in age from 7 to 16 years; there were free from other major health problems and were receiving conventional medical treatment for not less than 3 months.

All the patients included in the study were subjected to the following before and after the acupuncture sessions:

Asthma history taking.

Thorough clinical examination.

Investigations include the following:

Pulmonary function testing by spirometry (Fukuda Denshi Spirosift SP-5000).

Laboratory investigations

Complete blood count (especially the eosinophilic count), total serum IgE, and serum IL-6.

Acupuncture sessions:

Each patient was subjected to a needle acupuncture session three times per week for 4 weeks by application of a filiform disposable needle on each of the points selected according to traditional Chinese medicine for 20 min.

The points were selected according to traditional Chinese medicine along the following energy meridians: (Lu-4,7,9), (LI-4), (Bl-13,23), (Ren 17), (St-36), (Sp-6).

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Ethical committee

Informed consent was obtained from the parents before starting the study according to the scientific ethical committee rules of the National Research Centre and Hospitals of Cairo Universities.

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The study included 10 female and 20 male children with asthma (Figs 1–4 and Tables 2–7).

We observed that there were reduction in IL-6 only by 30%, IgE only by 26.7% and in both by 36.7%.

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The chronicity of bronchial asthma and fear of steroid therapy lead many patients to seek alternative methods of treatment.

Acupuncture has traditionally been used in asthma treatment in China and is increasingly being used in western countries. Although there are many published studies on acupuncture and asthma, few fulfill the scientific criteria necessary to prove the effectiveness of acupuncture.

According to the GINA classification, the number of patients free from attacks increased to 10 after the acupuncture sessions (33.3%); intermittent attacks, which were earlier seen in five patients (16.7%), increased to 16 patients (53.3%) after the acupuncture sessions, but moderate persistent attacks, which were earlier seen in 21 patients (70%), were not seen in any patient after the acupuncture sessions.

Ahrens et al. 22 reported mild clinical benefits in bronchial asthma in terms of symptoms and signs, which is in agreement with our study. This is also in agreement with Neveu et al. 23, who concluded that active acupuncture induces additional clinically significant improvement in the quality of life and symptoms of dyspnea in asthmatic patients who are under therapeutic management.

Joos et al. 17 showed that acupuncture had an immediate effect in relieving the symptoms of asthma.

The results of the current study indicated a decrease in the eosinophilic count after acupuncture sessions. This finding is agreement with that of Jeong et al. 24, who examined the short-term and long-term effects of real versus sham acupuncture in patients with bronchial asthma, but our study showed greater significant reduction in the eosinophilic count because of the longer duration of our intervention.

Joos et al. 17 concluded, in his randomized-controlled study on the immunomodulatory effects of acupuncture on inflammatory cells and cytokines in some asthma patients, that there were significant decreases in cytokines IL-6 (P=0.026). In our study, there was no significant decrease, perhaps because of the wide range in our laboratory results of IL-6.

Petti et al. 25 reported beneficial effects of acupuncture as a CAM for children with bronchial asthma and suggested that the decrease in IL-6 may indicate an improvement in the immune system of patients with allergic asthma because of IL-6 production of numerous effector mechanisms in the pathogenesis of allergic asthma.

All pulmonary function parameters assessed in the study showed significant improvements after acupuncture sessions; the VC% improved from 62.7±14.2 to 75.2±12.3 (P<0.001) and the FVC% from 49.1±13.8 to 64±14.2 (P<0.001). Also, the FEV1% improved from 53.6±15.0 to 69.2±14.1 (P<0.001). The FEF25–75% decreased with resistance in small-sized and medium-sized bronchioles and also improved from 67.9±17.0 to 91.6±16.2 (P<0.001); PEF% improved from 53±13.6 to 68.7±10.6 (P<0.001), FEF25% from 2.2±0.7 to 2.8±0.7 (P<0.001), FEF50% from 1.6±0.5 to 2.2±0.5 (P<0.001), and FEF75% from 1.1±0.5 to 1.6±0.6 (P<0.001).

The results of Barton 26 were in agreement with ours as he found that the pulmonary function test showed an immediate improvement. The results of Kuo-Chu et al. 21 are also in agreement with ours in his conclusion that the use of acupuncture for 12 days resulted in a significant improvement in all pulmonary functions, except the FEV1/FVC ratio in patients with moderate and severe asthma. We obtained the same result but with a minimal increase in the value of the FEV1/FVC ratio, perhaps because of the severity and the chronicity of the disease, which affect the bronchial patency.

In this study, we observed that in patients who showed a reduction in the levels of both IL-6 and IgE, there was a significant improvement in the means of VC% from 66.6±13.3 to 79.1±11.2 (P=0.012) after acupuncture sessions, FVC% from 53.8±12.6 to 63.9±11.9 (P=0.035), FEV1% from 59.1±13.6 to 70.5±12.8 (P=0.026), FEF25–75% from 74.5±14.6 to 97.0±12.2 (P=0.002), and PEF% from 56.6±12.4 to 70.5±7.6 (P=0.002); after the acupuncture sessions, FEF25% improved from 2.3±0.7 to 2.9±0.05 (P=0.004), FEF50% improved from 1.7±0.5 to 2.3±0.4 (P<0.001), and FEF75% improved from 1.2±0.5 to 1.6±0.4 (P=0.005). This improvement in the pulmonary functions in this group was not significantly different in comparison with the total group; thus, we need further studies to correlate the improvement in pulmonary functions and the reduction in cytokines in the blood in a larger number of patients and longer durations of acupuncture sessions.

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The chronicity of bronchial asthma and fear of steroid therapy lead many patients to seek alternative methods of treatment such as acupuncture. Acupuncture has an effect on bronchial asthma through its anti-inflammatory effect as it can modulate the levels of cytokines and other anti-inflammatory mediators.

A direct bronchodilating effect was observed in patients, who showed an immediate bronchodilating response of FEV1 after acupuncture, and a similar bronchodilator response was reproducible with repeated acupuncture sessions.

We found a significant improvement in many parameters: clinical (symptoms, signs, frequency of attacks, night awakening) and pulmonary functions (VC%, FVC%, FEV1%, FEF25–75%, PEF%, FEF25%, FEF50%, and FEF75%). However, there were reductions in the medication used, for example, bronchodilators, corticosteroids, and mast cell stabilizers.

Patients also showed a significant decrease in eosinophilic counts and a nonsignificant decrease in IL-6 and IgE.

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Acupuncture sessions for children with bronchial asthma result in measurable improvement in clinical condition, pulmonary functions, and cytokines.

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

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