By Alexandra Sifferlin, TIME.com
Updated 2118 GMT (0518 HKT) February 20, 2017
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.
That view is supported by Dr. Remy Coeytaux of the Duke Clinical Research Institute and Dr. Jongbae of the Regional Center for Neurosensory Disorders and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who wrote an editorial accompanying the study.
They note that acupuncture's benefits have started to emerge over the last 15 years and enough high-quality clinical trials support "patient-level meta-analyses for several clinical indications." They suggest that more rigorous research, which would include comparing acupuncture with existing treatments for conditions such as allergies, should be conducted in coming years.
They write: "It may be time to begin asking such questions as: How does acupuncture compare directly with other therapeutic approaches? Which of the many acupuncture traditions or approaches is most effective or appropriate for a given clinical indication? What outcomes or process measures should we be assessing in clinical trials of acupuncture? Is the magnitude of effect, if any, associated with acupuncture for a given clinical indication 'worth it' from the perspective of patients, payers, or policymakers?"
In the meantime, study author Dr. Benno Brinkhaus of the Institute for Social Medicine, Epidemiology and Health Economics at Charité University Medical Center in Berlin wrote in an e-mail response describing the study that "From my experience as a physician and acupuncturist, and as a researcher, I would recommend trying acupuncture if patients are not satisfied with the conventional anti-allergic medication or treatment or they suffer from more or less serious sides effects of the conventional medication. Also because acupuncture is a relative safe treatment."
Until more stringent studies document what effects acupuncture might have on the sneezing and sniffling of allergies, however, you may not know for sure whether those sessions under the needles are likely to do you any good.