Acupuncture and related interventions for the symptoms of chronic kidney disease


Patients with chronic kidney disease experience various physical and psychological symptoms, but treatment options are limited because of reduced kidney function and other chronic health problems. Acupuncture is widely used to treat common symptoms such as pain, fatigue or depressive mood in patients with chronic conditions. This review aimed to investigate the current evidence and potential role for acupuncture in patients with chronic kidney disease (CKD).

Study characteristics

We searched the literature up to January 2016 and analysed 24 studies that involved 1787 participants. Of these, only seven studies provided data that could be combined for analysis. The studies reported that manual acupressure improved fatigue, depression and sleep disturbance when used as an adjunct to routine care for patients undergoing maintenance haemodialysis 4 weeks from baseline. No study assessed pain and most did not report whether adverse events of acupuncture occurred.

Key results

Overall, we found very low quality evidence about the effectiveness of acupuncture for symptoms of CKD. Manual acupressure combined with routine care may provide short-term symptom relief from depressive mood, fatigue and sleep disturbance in patients undergoing haemodialysis. Findings from this review cannot support the benefits of other acupuncture techniques for patients with CKD because there were too few reliable studies. Pain is a common condition in patients with CKD. Thus, the potential role of acupuncture for pain control in patients with CKD deserves further research.

Clinicians should carefully monitor the safety of acupuncture in patients with CKD unless sound evidence supports the safety of these interventions for CKD patients.

Quality of the evidence

All studies were assessed at high or unclear risk of bias, especially in terms of selection of participants and selective outcome reporting, which made the validity of their results doubtful.

Authors' conclusions: 

There was very low quality of evidence of the short-term effects of manual acupressure as an adjuvant intervention for fatigue, depression, sleep disturbance and uraemic pruritus in patients undergoing regular haemodialysis. The paucity of evidence indicates that there is little evidence of the effects of other types of acupuncture for other outcomes, including pain, in patients with other stages of CKD. Overall high or unclear risk of bias distorts the validity of the reported benefit of acupuncture and makes the estimated effects uncertain. The incomplete reporting of acupuncture-related harm does not permit us to assess the safety of acupuncture and related interventions. Future studies should investigate the effects and safety of acupuncture for pain and other common symptoms in patients with CKD and those undergoing dialysis.

Read the full abstract...

People living with chronic kidney disease (CKD) experience a range of symptoms and often have complex comorbidities. Many pharmacological interventions for people with CKD have known risks of adverse events. Acupuncture is widely used for symptom management in patients with chronic diseases and in other palliative care settings. However, the safety and efficacy of acupuncture for people with CKD remains largely unknown.


We aimed to evaluate the benefits and harms of acupuncture, electro-acupuncture, acupressure, moxibustion and other acupuncture-related interventions (alone or combined with other acupuncture-related interventions) for symptoms of CKD. In particular, we planned to compare acupuncture and related interventions with conventional medicine, active non-pharmacological interventions, and routine care for symptoms of CKD.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Kidney and Transplant Specialised Register up to 28 January 2016 through contact with the Information Specialist using search terms relevant to this review. We also searched Korean medical databases (including Korean Studies Information, DBPIA, Korea Institute of Science and Technology Information, Research Information Centre for Health Database, KoreaMed, the National Assembly Library) and Chinese databases (including the China Academic Journal).

Selection criteria: 

We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and quasi-RCTs that investigated the effects of acupuncture and related point-stimulation interventions with or without needle penetration that involved six sessions or more in adults with CKD stage 3 to 5, regardless of the language and type of publication. We excluded studies that used herbal medicine or co-interventions administered unequally among the study groups.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two authors independently extracted data and assessed risk of bias. We calculated the mean difference (MD) or standardised mean difference (SMD) with 95% confidence intervals (CI) for continuous outcomes and risk ratio (RR) for dichotomous outcomes. Primary outcomes were changes in pain and depression, and occurrence of serious of adverse events.

Main results: 

We included 24 studies that involved a total of 1787 participants. Studies reported on various types of acupuncture and related interventions including manual acupuncture and acupressure, ear acupressure, transcutaneous electrical acupuncture point stimulation, far-infrared radiation on acupuncture points and indirect moxibustion. CKD stages included pre-dialysis stage 3 or 4 and end-stage kidney disease on either haemodialysis or peritoneal dialysis.

None of the included studies assessed pain outcomes, nor formally addressed occurrence of serious adverse events, although three studies reported three participant deaths and three hospitalisations as reasons for attrition. Three studies reported minor acupuncture-related harms; the remainder did not report if those events occurred.

All studies were assessed at high or unclear risk of bias in terms of allocation concealment. Seventeen studies reported outcomes measured for only two months.

There was very low quality of evidence that compared with routine care, manual acupressure reduced scores of the Beck Depression Inventory score (scale from 0 to 63) (3 studies, 128 participants: MD -4.29, 95% CI -7.48 to -1.11, I2 = 0%), the revised Piper Fatigue Scale (scale from 0 to 10) (3 studies, 128 participants: MD -1.19, 95% CI -1.77 to -0.60, I2 = 0%), and the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (scale from 0 to 21) (4 studies, 180 participants: MD -2.46, 95% CI -4.23 to -0.69, I2 = 50%).

We were unable to perform further meta-analyses because of the paucity of data and problems with clinical heterogeneity, such as different interventions, comparisons and timing of outcome measurements.