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Acupuncture May Help Ease Hay Fever

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But some recent research suggests that the needle stimulation also triggers the release of pain- and inflammation-fighting chemicals in the body. No one is sure why acupuncture would help with hay fever, but there is evidence that it curbs inflammatory immune-system substances involved in allergic reactions.

For the new study, Brinkhaus and colleagues recruited 422 adults with hay fever. They randomly assigned the patients to one of three groups: one that received 12 acupuncture sessions over eight weeks; one that received a "sham" version of acupuncture; and one that received no acupuncture.

In the sham version, acupuncturists used real needles, but inserted them only superficially and into areas of the skin that are not traditional acupuncture points. Patients in all three groups were allowed to take antihistamine medication when their symptoms flared up.

After eight weeks, the study found, patients given real acupuncture reported more symptom improvement than those in either of the comparison groups. On average, their quality-of-life "scores" were 0.5 to 0.7 points better -- which, in real life, should translate to a noticeable difference in hay fever symptoms, according to Nelson.

Brinkhaus, who is a medical doctor and acupuncturist, said he would recommend acupuncture to patients who are not satisfied with allergy medication -- either because it's not working or because of the side effects.

Dr. Remy Coeytaux, who co-wrote an editorial published with the study, agreed that acupuncture is worth a shot.

"Absolutely, give it a try if you are interested," said Coeytaux, an associate professor of community and family medicine at Duke University School of Medicine, who studies acupuncture.

According to Coeytaux, one of the strengths of this study is that it compared acupuncture against both antihistamines alone and sham acupuncture. The fake procedure was used to help control for the "placebo effect" -- where people feel better after receiving a treatment just because they believe it will work.

But Coeytaux said it's also time for studies to move beyond testing real acupuncture against sham versions. One reason is that those fake procedures may actually have physiological effects of their own -- making them poor placebos.

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