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Treatment by acupuncture.Getty Images/iStockphoto

Watery eyes and stuffy noses are seasonal martyrdom for millions of allergy sufferers around the globe, but now a German study has found that some help may come from an unlikely source: acupuncture.

Researchers, publishing in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found that 71 per cent of people reported an improvement in their allergies after eight weeks of acupuncture. But so did 56 per cent of allergy sufferers who were treated with sham acupuncture as a comparison.

"Acupuncture led to statistically significant improvements in disease-specific quality of life and antihistamine use measures after eight weeks of treatment compared with sham acupuncture and with [medication] alone," lead researcher Benno Brinkhaus wrote. "But the improvements may not be clinically significant."

At Charité-University Medical Center in Berlin, Brinkhaus and his colleagues randomly assigned 422 people with seasonal allergies to receive real or sham acupuncture or to take only antihistamines as needed. After eight weeks and 12 treatment sessions, average allergy symptom scores dropped among people in the acupuncture group to 1.7 from 2.7 points on a 0-to-6 scale, where lower scores indicate fewer symptoms. Among patients treated with sham acupuncture, symptom scores improved to 1.8 from 2.3 points, and to 2.2 from 2.5 in the medication-only group. However, by another eight weeks after the treatment ended, there was no longer any difference in the degree of symptom improvement between groups.

People with allergies would probably notice about a half-point change on the symptom scale, the researchers said.

"It works, but there are some caveats [for] people who might think of using it," said Harold Nelson, who treats allergies at National Jewish Health in Denver and was not part of the study.

"This is pretty invasive, particularly when you compare it to something like spraying a nasal steroid in your nose once a morning," he added. It is also more time-consuming and requires finding a qualified, licensed acupuncturist.

Researchers are not sure why acupuncture might help people with seasonal allergies, other than its possible beneficial effect on the immune system. Nelson said antihistamines might not have been the best drug comparison for acupuncture, since daily use of nasal steroids is better at preventing symptoms. But drugs do not work well for everybody.

"We mostly saw patients in our outpatient practice who have had this disease for years," Brinkhaus said. "They are not very happy taking the medications every day, and some of them suffer from side effects."

For those people, acupuncture could be a good add-on option, he said. "It's not an alternative. We use it firstly as some sort of complementary medicine," he said. "If the acupuncture has good results, we can reduce the anti-allergic medication."

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