Could acupuncture help coronavirus patients?

Could acupuncture help coronavirus patients? Harvard study claims the ancient technique quiets inflammation ‘storm’ seen in sepsis and COVID-19 patients during animal tests

  • Harvard Medical School scientists tested a modern form of acupuncture to treat inflammation from sepsis in mice
  • Mice that got the needle treatment in their hind legs had lower levels of inflammatory proteins called cytokines in their blood 
  • The so-called ‘cytokine storm’ of out of control inflammation is responsible for the deaths of many coronavirus patients 
  • Mice treated with acupuncture had three to four times better survival odds than did mice that did not get the treatment  

A modernized version of the ancient homeopathic needle treatment, acupuncture, might help stem the kind of out-of-control inflammation that kills many coronavirus patients, a new study suggests. 

Harvard scientists found that mice with bacterial infections that were treated with electroacupuncture had lower levels of three key types of cytokines – immune proteins that trigger inflammation. 

These proteins have become relatively well known outside of medicine as doctors discovered they seemed to be responsible for the overwhelming inflammation that has ultimately led to the deaths of many people with COVID-19. 

But they are activated by all kinds of infections. Bringing down levels of these inflammatory cytokines has been a key aim of treatments for COVID-19. 

Although they had a different type of infection, mice treated with the cytokine-quelling acupuncture protocol were three times more likely to survive their illness compared to mice that didn’t get the needle treatment, the new study reveals. 

Their findings suggest that acupuncture might be a helpful complementary treatment for inflammation – but caution against using it before human safety tests have been done.  

A modern version of the ancient Chinese practice of acupuncture may stimulate the Vagus nerve to help stem the production of immune proteins called cytokines, which can lead to out-of-control inflammation in both sepsis and coronavirus patients, a mouse study suggests

Acupuncture can be traced back to sometime between 100 BC and 600 BC. It s considered among the oldest of ancient Chinese medicine practices. 

Its usage and repute have fluctuated wildly over the centuries. 

Some practitioners and patients swear by it as a treatment for everything from chronic pain to indigestion and migraines. 

Paradoxically, claims of its broad usefulness may have contributed to acupuncture’s reputation as quackery. 

Clinical studies have turned up a variety results. Some have suggested that acupuncture’s benefits boil down to a ‘nocebo’ effect, but a recent study found that, compared to ‘sham’ acupuncture, patients treated with the real procedure got relief from indigestion and bloating 

And in the US, it’s increasingly been integrated with Western medical practices, moving from ‘alternative’ medicine to ‘complementary’ medicine. 

Dr Qiufu Ma, a Harvard Medical School professor of neurobiology is interested in working out how the treatment might stimulate the nervous system and alter the function of organs that correspond to various ‘acupoints’ – areas of thee exterior body into which needles are carefully placed just below the skin’s surface.


The NHS advises on its Choices website that acupuncture is safe when practised with good hygiene by a qualified practitioner. 

Some people experience mild, short-lived side effects such as:

  • Pain where the needles puncture the skin
  • Bleeding or bruising where the needles puncture the skin
  • Drowsiness
  • Feeling sick
  • Feeling dizzy or faint
  • Worsening of pre-existing symptoms

If you have a bleeding disorder, such as haemophilia, or are taking anticoagulants, talk to your GP before you have acupuncture.

Acupuncture is also not usually advised if you have a metal allergy or an infection in the area where needles may be inserted.

It’s generally safe to have acupuncture when you’re pregnant. However, let your acupuncture practitioner know if you’re pregnant because certain acupuncture points can’t be used safely during pregnancy.

He was further intrigued by a series of studies that suggested acupuncture could be used to stimulate the vagus nerve, which acts as a kind of coordinator for the massive network of the parasympathetic nervous system and central role in the inflammatory response. 

For the new study, published in the journal Neuron, Dr Ma and his team wondered if acupuncture could help fight inflammation triggered by infections, too. 

Specifically, they examined the potential effects of acupuncture on inflammation related to sepsis, a life-threatening complication of infections that strikes 30 million people worldwide and 1.7 million in the US each year. 

Dr Ma and his team placed tiny electrode needles just under the skin of each mouse’s hind legs. A low-grade electrical current that runs through the needles creates subtle stimulation. 

They saw that this did activate the vagus nerve triggered the release of dopamine, an anti-inflammatory neurotransmitter. 

The animals that got this treatment showed lower levels of cytokines in their blood work. 

About 60 percent of the acupuncture-treated mice survived the infection, while only 20 percent of the untreated animals lived. 

The effects of acupuncture appeared even more remarkable when the stimulation was delivered before their blood work showed signs of the cytokine storm, improving survival rtes from 20 to 80 percent. 

‘Our findings represent an important step in ongoing efforts not only to understand the neuroanatomy of acupuncture but to identify ways to incorporate it into the treatment arsenal of inflammatory diseases, including sepsis,’ said Dr Ma. 

And because the inflammatory response is similar to that seen in coronavirus patients, covid-positive people might stand to gain the same benefits – though the research team cautions against using it before acupuncture has been tested in more animals and humans.    

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