Acupuncture for Cancer Patients

Acupuncture needles in a woman's back
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Many cancer centers are now offering acupuncture for cancer patients. Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine practice that has been around for thousands of years. It is based on the principle of health in relation to a balance of yin and yang in the body.

During an acupuncture session, practitioners use needles placed along the energy pathways of the body (meridians) to re-balance the body’s energies.

Once an uncommon practice in the United States, the 2012 National Health Interview Survey estimated that 1.5% of the population currently uses acupuncture. In 1997, the National Institutes of Health issued a statement endorsing acupuncture for helping manage several health conditions.

How Acupuncture Is Used for People With Cancer

In cancer centers, acupuncture is used as an integrative complementary treatment. This means that acupuncture is used along with conventional treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy to treat cancer.

Benefits

Research studies have evaluated acupuncture and its effects on different symptoms of cancer.

  • Cancer-related fatigue: A 2018 review of studies in which acupuncture was compared with sham acupuncture found that acupuncture had a marked effect on cancer-related fatigue. Fatigue is a common effect of cancer and cancer treatments.
  • Chemotherapy-induced nausea: Perhaps the most research to date has been done to evaluate the effect of acupuncture on chemotherapy-induced nausea. According to the National Cancer Institute, there is strong evidence that acupuncture can relieve nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy.
  • Pain: Studies looking at pain control with acupuncture suggest that it may help with reducing the pain from cancer, as well as from surgery. Though it usually does not replace pain medications, it may help reduce the amount of pain medication needed, and consequently some of the side effects of those pain medicines. Recent studies also suggest that acupuncture is helpful for reducing chronic pain as well.
  • Depression and anxiety: Preliminary studies have found that acupuncture may reduce depression and anxiety in cancer patients.
  • Sleep: At least one study to date found that people with cancer who underwent acupuncture showed improvement in their quality of sleep.
  • Chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy: Acupuncture has been used to relieve symptoms of chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy and has been found to be effective for some people, but not others.
  • Immune Function: Acupuncture may also have a positive influence on immune function in people with cancer. Whether this could have a role in treating cancer is still speculation at this point in time.

How Acupuncture Works

Several theories have tried to explain how acupuncture works from a scientific point of view. Acupuncture may alter the transmission of neurotransmitters. In that role, it might inpact the release of endorphins, pain-relieving chemicals produced in the brain.

Cautions

Cancer treatment calls for special precautions to be taken when having acupuncture, and it is important to discuss treatment with your oncologist before your first visit.

A lowered white blood cell count (neutropenia) may reduce your ability to fight infections. A lowered platelet count (thrombocytopenia) may contribute to bruising or difficulty stopping bleeding if your count is very low.

What a Typical Treatment Is Like

Before your acupuncture session, your acupuncturist will ask you about your current health. They will also examine you. For example, they will look at your tongue and check your pulse. In traditional Chinese medicine, it’s felt that many conditions and your general health can be evaluated by examining your tongue (called tongue diagnosis).

You may be asked to change into a gown (depending upon the clothes you are wearing), and lie down on a comfortable table. Your acupuncturist will then wipe the areas of your skin with alcohol before placing the needles. The needles that are used are about as thin as hair and most people feel little, if any, discomfort during the procedure.

You can expect to have between 5 and 20 needles placed in your skin, and sometimes your acupuncturist will twirl them slightly as they are placed. The needles will then be left in place for 15 to 30 minutes.

When the procedure is done, you may not feel any different than when you arrived, although some people feel relaxed and others feel energized.

Possible Complications

Complications of acupuncture are rare, but may include:

  • Bleeding
  • Infection
  • Bruising, especially if your platelet count is low due to chemotherapy or cancer
  • Discomfort

Damage to organs is very rare but could occur if the needles are placed too deep, especially near the lungs.

How to Find an Acupuncturist

Many cancer centers now offer acupuncture as an option for therapy for people with cancer. If not, check with your oncologist to see if they know of an acupuncturist to recommend. You might also check with friends in your cancer support group, or search for someone in your area via the resources below:

  • NCCAOM.org
  • Academy of Medical Acupuncture. This site allows you to search for medical doctors who provide acupuncture services.
  • Local state acupuncture boards show licensed practitioners

Insurance Coverage

Some insurance companies cover the cost of acupuncture as an adjunctive therapy for people with cancer, especially if it is offered by your cancer center. Many insurers request that visits be with a licensed provider of acupuncture if licensure is required in your state.

Outlook

Clinical trials are in progress studying the role of acupuncture in cancer, such as the effect of acupuncture on chronic post-chemotherapy fatigue or for symptoms of chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, It has also been considered a useful tool for sleep disruption in cancer survivors.

Other Complementary Therapies

There are several complementary therapies, like massage therapy or homeopathic therapy, that can be beneficial for reducing some of the symptoms of cancer. These therapies are being used in an integrative fashion along with conventional treatments for cancer. You might want to consider acupuncture as a potential option for helping manage some of your cancer symptoms or chemotherapy side effects.

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14 Sources
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