We are heading into the allergy season for late summer and early fall.
Ragweed and a number of different molds are significantly contributing to the symptoms that many people experience this time of the year: sinus congestion and headaches, runny nose, chronic cough and just an overall feeling of fatigue.
Acupuncture may help.
Although seasonal allergies may not sound like the most serious medical condition, the economic impact is substantial. The economic shock has been estimated to be well over $3 billion annually with over 2 billion in direct medical costs.
Given the current state of declining insurance reimbursement, the direct medical costs to those with seasonal allergies exceed $1.5 billion per year.
Taking medications is the most common therapy for seasonal allergies. However, there is growing evidence that a series of acupuncture treatments can result in not only immediate relief of symptoms, but also help to reduce the symptoms going forward.
A recent medical study conducted in Germany and published in the medical journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine demonstrated that the use of acupuncture reduced the need for medications.
This was a three-part study involving 422 participants. Acupuncture was more effective then the control sham acupuncture and more effective than medications alone.
Even though there is reasonable medical evidence to indicate that acupuncture is effective in reducing the symptoms of seasonal allergies even to the point of being more effective than medications, there is a question as to whether or not it is cost-effective.
Cost-effectiveness of any therapy or medication is the evaluation of the cost of the therapy or medication versus the long-term success. In the case of acupuncture versus medication for seasonal allergies, acupuncture is definitely more expensive.
An extension of the above medical study (published in the medical journal Annals of Allergy Asthma and Immunology) demonstrated that acupuncture seems to have a much longer lasting effect once the acupuncture program is completed.
In contrast medications often need to be taken for much longer period of time. Therefore acupuncture initially has a higher cost but medications are used for longer periods of time.
The study demonstrated that the cost-effectiveness of acupuncture was similar to usual prescription medications. One additional benefit of acupuncture is that it does not have the side effects associated with usual prescription medications.
My own clinical experience with seasonal allergies has led me to believe that there are a number of effective alternatives to prescription or over-the-counter medications.
For my patients who have tried acupuncture, the results have been quite positive and lasting. For acupuncture, I recommend six sessions to see if there is any benefit.
If there is no benefit at the end of six sessions, it's unlikely that more sessions will be successful.
The quality of education and experience of the acupuncturist is critical for success with seasonal allergies.
Unfortunately, acupuncture is rarely covered by medical insurance and is never covered by Medicare.
If there is substantial and lasting symptom relief, however, it will be money well spent.
• Patrick B. Massey, MD, PH.D., is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine at Alexian Brothers Hospital Network and president of ALT-MED Medical and Physical Therapy, 1544 Nerge Road, Elk Grove Village. His website is www.alt-med.org.