A small trial new suggests that acupuncture may have big benefits for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The complementary treatment could help lessen labored breathing after exertion, a problem for many people with COPD, which is actually an umbrella classification for a group of lung diseases that block airflow.

"This is a disease of old age, generally, that has no very good safe treatment conventionally," said George T. Lewith with the University of Southampton in England, author of an editorial accompanying the new study in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

"The effect in this study meant that people feel very, very much better," Lewith added.

To gauge the possible impact of acupuncture on COPD, researchers in Japan recruited 68 adults with the disease who were then split into two groups -- half received acupuncture for 12 weeks, the other half received placebo acupuncture, or blunt needles that did not actually enter the skin. All of the participants stayed on whatever medications they had previously been prescribed.

When researchers administered walking tests and monitored participants for trouble breathing, they found that those who had received the real acupuncture were far less breathless than those in the placebo group.

"In COPD patients, muscles [that] support thoracic movement during respiration are markedly fatigued," said study co-author Masao Suzuki of Kyoto University, hypothesizing about the possible underlying mechanisms.

"Acupuncture causes relaxation of these muscles and consequently the function of the muscles recovers to support better respiration," Suzuki continued.

But while the new study is promising, experts caution that continued investigation is necessary. The sample size was small and the results must be confirmed through additional research. Also, while the study participants were masked, the acupuncture therapists were not, "which might influence the results based on their attitudes," the study authors write.

"This is a very difficult illness to treat and manage and this result looks very much like a breakthrough, but you should never change management on the basis of one trial," Lewith said.

As the Mayo Clinic explains, short-acting bronchodilators are the "mainstay" of medication therapy for COPD, as they can provide quick relief of symptoms, such as shortness of breath.

According to the World Health Organization, 65 million people have moderate to severe COPD and total deaths are expected to increase by more than 30 percent in the next 10 years. The main risk factors are smoking, as well as indoor and outdoor air pollution.