Acupuncture, a centuries old Traditional Chinese Medicine, is now widely held as an effective solution that relieves some side effects of cancer treatments.
Acupuncture, a practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), has evolved over the past 3,000 years. While the efficacy of some TCM practices is still debated, physicians agree acupuncture can be beneficial for people receiving cancer treatments. As a result, more people are including acupuncture as complementary treatment alongside conventional treatments in their integrative therapy plans.
What Is Acupuncture, Exactly?
How does acupuncture help your body’s system achieve and maintain balance? First, the acupuncturist will take your pulse and do a quick physical examination. They’ll also ask about your health and the issues you’re experiencing to determine the best acupuncture treatment plan.
Acupuncture practitioners stimulate specific points on the body by inserting very fine needles into the skin. The needles, which are inserting very gently, remain in place for five to 30 minutes. Natural self-healing at the treated “acupoints” can also be enhanced through the use of pressure, electrical stimulation, heat therapy, cupping, topical herbal medications and massage.
How Acupuncture Can Help People With Cancer
The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) recognized acupuncture as a safe, effective therapy for numerous health conditions in 1997. Medical research has shown acupuncture may have a positive effect on the:
- Nervous system. Helps relieve musculoskeletal pain and reduce headaches.
- Digestive system. Aids in digestive function and eases nausea.
- Cardiovascular system. Improves high or low blood pressure.
- Endocrine system. Relieves insomnia and boosts mood.
- Immune system. Improves the immune system by lowering anxiety and stress.
Its benefits are so well documented that many health insurance policies cover acupuncture treatments.
Pain relief is the most cited benefit of acupuncture. A meta-analysis of nearly 18,000 participants in 29 randomized trials was completed to measure how well acupuncture relieved chronic pain in four specific areas of the body. Patients involved in the study received one of four treatments: electro-acupuncture, sham-acupuncture, gabepentin or a placebo pill. The analysis showed definitively that the age-old therapy can be effective for treating chronic pain and is, therefore, a reasonable complimentary option.
Andrew Vickers, PhD, a research methodologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, notes the study analyzed raw patient data, which allowed for statistically precise results. And while the studies did not specifically address cancer pain, he says the results still apply.
“Often, how we treat pain in cancer patients depends on research conducted on patients with chronic pain, not specifically those with cancer pain. Our results can therefore help inform cancer care,” Vickers says.
Some of the trials Vickers and associates used compared the pain relief benefit of acupuncture to standard care (no acupuncture). Other trials compared genuine acupuncture to placebo (a substance that has no therapeutic effect, used as a control in testing new therapies) acupuncture in which the needles are inserted superficially or at non-traditional sites. There were also analyzed trials that compared all three methods. At the end of treatment, around half of the patients treated with true acupuncture reported improvements, compared with 30 percent of patients who did not use acupuncture.
Relief for Hot Flashes
Researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania found electro-acupuncture—where needles deliver a weak electrical current—produced less adverse reactions than did the medication gabapentin for treating hot flashes among breast cancer survivors.
The Penn researchers concluded electro-acupuncture may be an effective management treatment. “These latest results “clearly show promise for managing hot flashes experienced by breast cancer survivors through the use of acupuncture,” lead author Jun J. Mao said in a statement. “In previous studies, it has also been proven to be an effective treatment for joint pain in this patient population.”
The electro-acupuncture group and the sham electro-acupuncture group experienced 47.8 percent and 45 percent improvement in hot flashes respectively. Improvement for the gabapentin group was 39.4 percent and 22.3 percent with placebo. Both acupuncture groups also reported fewer adverse side effects than the pill groups.
“We found acupuncture elicited a greater placebo response than did pills, consistent with observations in studies of pain,” the authors wrote. “Although not completely understood, the enhanced placebo effect seen in acupuncture may be a combination of positive expectations". This includes:
- Patient–provider interaction
- Active patient engagement
- Light sensory stimulation by the placebo needling
The groups were evaluated again four months after therapy ended to measure the strength of the treatment effects. Researchers found survivors who received electro-acupuncture had the best long-term effect (-8.5), followed by the placebo acupuncture group (-6.1), placebo pill group (-4.6) and the gabapentin group (-2.8).
Treating the Side Effects of Radiation and Chemotherapy
Lorenzo Cohen, PhD, Director of the MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Integrative Medicine Program in Houston, says current acupuncture studies with Fudan University are promising. One study examined the use of acupuncture to prevent and treat radiation-induced xerostomia (dry mouth). Another study gauged how well acupuncture treated nausea from chemotherapy for liver cancer or liver metastasis.
“Years ago, the National Institutes of Health released a consensus statement that the data were strong to support the use of acupuncture in treating chemotherapy-induced nausea,” says Cohen. “There is a lot of ongoing research in this area, data suggesting acupuncture is good for managing cancer-related fatigue, aspects of pain, hot flashes, for helping treat sleep-related disturbances and gastrointestinal disorders.”
The American Cancer Society estimates up to 50% of cancer patients use some type of integrative or complementary therapy. With more patients turning to integrative therapies, research in these areas is increasing.
Dr. Cohen is very hopeful that complementary therapies will become a part of standard cancer treatment. “I think there is a better understanding now that many of the treatments the Chinese have been using for hundreds, if not thousands, of years may be useful in the battle against cancer.”
If you’re experiencing side effects from cancer treatment, discuss the idea of acupuncture with your doctor. Based on the type of side effects you have, your doctor can determine if acupuncture will be an effective complimentary therapy. You health care team can also help you find a licensed acupuncture therapist who has experience working with cancer survivors.