Acupressure for Chemotherapy-Induced Nausea and Vomiting

As nausea and vomiting are one of the most feared side effects of chemotherapy, methods of reducing these symptoms have been the subject of much research. It's important to note that medications to control these symptoms have come a long way and many people are able to tolerate even the most nauseating chemotherapy medications with little or no nausea these days. That said, researchers are looking for additional methods of controlling nausea, if only to reduce the amount of anti-nausea drugs (antiemetics) required to control this symptom. Learn more about medications as well as what you can do yourself to cope with chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.

Other integrative approaches (complementary therapies used along with conventional therapies) for chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting are discussed at the end of this article.

Keep in mind that acupressure is not a substitute for traditional health care for any condition.

What is Acupressure?

Acupressure is an ancient Chinese practice similar to acupuncture, in which fingers (or a device such as a wristband) are used to apply pressure to a region of the body. Some people call it "acupuncture without the needles."

The theory is that by applying pressure to specific points, (called "pressure points,") symptoms such as pain or nausea are improved.

For nausea, it's thought that pressure to a point known as P6 (pericardium 6) or Nei Guan on the underside of the wrist can alter these signals.

How to Perform Acupressure for Nausea and Vomiting

Sometimes people elect to try acupressure themselves, while others opt to see an acupuncturist who is trained in locating these points on meridians.

To find the point used for improving nausea symptoms i.e. called the P6 point (or PC6 point) sit with your palm up. Place your thumb in the area where your hand meets your wrist, and then move 2 fingerbreadths up your arm towards your elbow. The P6 point is located here in the region between the 2 large tendons.

Most acupuncturists recommend placing gentle but firm pressure on this area for 30 seconds to 2 minutes and repeating the pressure up to 5 times.

What Do Studies Show?

Overall, studies have been inconclusive in determining whether or not acupressure plays a significant role in the reduction of chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.

Some studies have found no overall improvements in symptoms for people doing acupressure.

Other studies have found that acupressure has a modest effect on some aspects of nausea, and at least reduces the amount of anti-nausea medications needed to control symptoms.

There have been many studies looking at this method and several clinical trials are in progress, suggesting that there are some people who believe acupressure may help with this annoying symptom. 

Limitations of Studies

Why with so many studies don't we have a solid answer to this question? Some reasons include:

  • The number of people studied in most clinical trials looking at acupressure is small.
  • There are many aspects of nausea and vomiting, including "anticipatory nausea" (nausea felt before chemotherapy), acute nausea, delayed nausea, early vomiting, late vomiting, etc. Some studies have separated out these various types of symptoms, whereas others have not.
  • Nausea is a subjective symptom, making it more difficult to assess.
  • There can be a placebo effect, even in clinical trials, since a "sham" form of acupressure is used in the control group.
  • Different methods are used. Some studies have used finger pressure, whereas others use wristbands.
  • The procedure can vary tremendously depending on the skill of the person performing acupressure.

Cautions/Potential Problems

In general, acupressure is a fairly non-invasive procedure, and only gentle pressure is applied. Possible risks include:

  • Discomfort from the pressure.
  • Infection - For example, infection risk could be a concern if pressure is applied to an open wound. The person performing acupressure should wash her hands before applying acupressure.
  • Bleeding - With chemotherapy, some people develop a low platelet count (chemotherapy-induced thrombocytopenia) which could raise the risk of bruising or bleeding. Taking blood thinners could also increase this risk.  Do not use acupressure if you are prone to bleeding.
  • If someone has had lymph nodes removed from their armpit and is at risk of lymphedema, any excessive pressure to that extremity should be avoided.

Bottom Line

Whether or not acupressure is effective, and even though there are few risks, it is still important to talk to your oncologist about any alternative therapies you wish to try.

One reason is that medicine is constantly changing, and changing more rapidly than ever before. Your oncologist may be aware of new information either supporting or refuting the benefits of this therapy or have learned about new information on possible side effects.

Perhaps the most important reason to talk with your oncologist is that there are very good treatments available for chemotherapy-induced nausea. Each patient is different, and your oncologist needs to know your particular symptoms in order to choose the best anti-nausea treatments for you.

A final reason to include your oncologist in this conversation is that in addition to “allopathic medicine” options, such as medications to control nausea, there are other integrative approaches (integrative refers to complementary practices used along with traditional medical treatment) that may possibly help you with nausea.

Some of these integrative approaches that are being studied include:

  • Ginger for Chemotherapy-Induced Nausea - In a 2009 study, a ginger supplement was found to reduce chemotherapy-induced nausea by 40 percent.
  • Acupuncture - According to the National Cancer Institute, there is strong evidence that acupuncture can help with chemotherapy-induced nausea. There are some precautions, however, noted in this article.

Again it's important to note that even in studies using ginger or acupuncture, these methods were used along with medications to relieve nausea.

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