From John F. Sacco, MD, a board-certified radiation oncologist with OHC who is also board certified in Integrative and Holistic Medicine, and the National Cancer Institute
November 21, 2018
Although there is no evidence that acupuncture can help treat or cure cancer, research does suggest that it can help relieve some symptoms and side effects of treatment. Researchers propose that acupuncture stimulates the nervous system to release natural painkillers and immune system cells. They then travel to throughout the body and relieve symptoms.
Acupuncture is a central part of traditional Chinese medicine where it is believed that vital energy, called “qi” (pronounced “chee”), flows through 20 pathways that are connected by acupuncture points. According to traditional Chinese medicine, if qi is blocked, the body can’t function at its peak. The goal of acupuncture is to open certain points on these pathways and release blocked qi.
Does it really help?
In 1997, the National Institutes of Health began looking at how well acupuncture worked as a complementary therapy for cancer-related symptoms and side effects of cancer treatments. The strongest evidence for acupuncture has come from clinical trials on the use of acupuncture to relieve nausea and vomiting.
- A 2013 review that included 41 randomized controlled trials found that acupuncture helped treat nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy.
- Another review from 11 randomized clinical trials found that fewer chemotherapy patients in the acupuncture groups had acute vomiting compared to the group that didn’t have acupuncture.
- A comparison of studies suggests that the specific point where the needle is inserted may make a difference in how well acupuncture works to relieve nausea caused by chemotherapy.
- In 2016, a randomized clinical trial of auricular acupressure (the stimulation of acupuncture points on the external ear surface for the diagnosis and treatment of health conditions in other areas of the body) was conducted in 48 breast cancer patients treated with chemotherapy. Patients who received auricular acupressure had less intense and less frequent nausea and vomiting compared with those who did not have auricular acupressure. These findings are limited since the study had a small number of patients and no placebo group.
The most thorough study of acupuncture in breast cancer patients was published in Journal of the American Medical Association in 2000. In the study, 104 women undergoing high-dose chemotherapy were given traditional anti-nausea medication. In addition to taking the medication, the women were randomly chosen to receive five days of one of the following:
- Electroacupuncture – acupuncture in which needles are stimulated with a mild electrical current
- acupuncture without an electrical current
- no acupuncture
The women who had acupuncture had significantly fewer nausea episodes than those who didn’t.
Before you try acupuncture
Safety is paramount in the use of acupuncture, especially with cancer patients. People who have low white blood cell counts are at an increased risk of infection because the low count weakens their immune systems, therefore it’s important that sterile needles be used.
In 1996, the FDA approved acupuncture needles for use by licensed practitioners, and requires that sterile needles be used and labeled for single use by qualified practitioners only. More than 40 states and the District of Columbia have laws about acupuncture practice and most states require practitioners to be certified.
Still, as with all therapies, acupuncture carries certain risks.
- Risk of lymphedema: Anyone who has had lymph nodes removed from under the arm should not have needles inserted into that arm. If acupuncture is used on an arm, there is a risk of lymphedema, or swelling caused by an excess of fluid in the arm.
- Risk of infection: It is standard practice to use disposable, single-use, sterile needles and to swab acupuncture areas with alcohol or a similar disinfectant before using needles. Infection is always a risk, but the risk is higher if the acupuncturist does not follow this process.
- Risk of bleeding for certain people: Because of the risk of bleeding, acupuncture should not be received by people who have bleeding disorders or have low white blood cell counts.
- Risk of reducing chemotherapy effectiveness because of using herbal supplements: Although acupuncture sometimes incorporates the use of herbal supplements, you should NOT take herbal supplements during a course of chemotherapy. Herbal supplements can reduce the effectiveness of chemotherapy.
What to expect in a typical acupuncture session
If you’ve decided to try acupuncture, here’s what you can expect.
- At your first acupuncture session, you’ll answer questions to let the practitioner know about any medications you’re taking, including herbal supplements, and any symptoms you have. Your treatment will be tailored to your individual lifestyle and health issues.
- Your practitioner will insert needles into the most appropriate acupuncture points for your condition. Most people feel slight or no pain as the needles are inserted. Needles are only inserted into the top layer of skin and are never inserted directly into any organs. Once the needles are in place, there is no pain.
- Acupuncture can feel different for each person. You may feel relaxed, or you may feel energized. Directly after the first treatment, some people feel slightly disoriented, but this is usually brief. After treatment, avoid activities that require you to be extra alert, such as driving, mowing the lawn, or cooking.
- In the days following treatment, you may notice changes in your appetite, sleep, or mood before you begin to feel improvement. If this happens, it lasts only a short while and passes with rest.
If you would like more information about acupuncture for cancer patients, talk with your cancer care team at OHC or call 1-800-710-4674.Comments (0)