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Acupuncture for Cancer

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Updated May 31, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

What is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture, an ancient Chinese therapy, involves the insertion of very thin needles into specific points on the body. These points are located along invisible lines known as "meridians," each of which is believed to be linked to a different organ system. By stimulating these points, acupuncturists aim to unblock the flow of vital energy (called "qi") through the meridians and restore health to the body.

Benefits of Acupuncture

Acupuncture has been practiced in traditional Chinese medicine for over 5,000 years, and is often used to promote healing from conditions like low back pain, migraine, sciatica, arthritis, and fibromyalgia, as well as to help people striving to quit smoking or conceive.

Although scientists have yet to determine how acupuncture works, it's suggested that the therapy may help trigger the release of pain-relieving brain chemicals, influence the autonomic nervous system, and/or stimulate circulation.

Acupuncture and Cancer

While acupuncture can't treat cancer itself, the therapy may help patients overcome cancer-related pain and fatigue (as well as certain side effects of standard cancer treatments). Here's a look at how acupuncture might benefit people coping with cancer:

1) Relief of Cancer Pain

In a 2003 study, researchers found that undergoing acupuncture helped reduce the intensity of cancer pain among 90 patients for whom pain-reducing medication was not sufficient.

2) Easing Post-Chemotherapy Fatigue

Acupuncture shows great potential in the management of post-chemotherapy fatigue, according to a 2007 study of 47 patients. After receiving six 20-minute acupuncture sessions over the course of two weeks, study participants experienced significant improvement in general fatigue, physical fatigue, activity, and motivation. Study results also indicated that participants performing acupressure on their own had improvement in fatigue as well.

3) Treating Chemotherapy-Related Nausea and Vomiting

In a report published in 2005, researchers reviewed 11 clinical trials and found that acupuncture reduced post-chemotherapy vomiting. The review also found that acupressure helped lessen the severity of post-chemotherapy nausea.

4) Reducing Radiation Side Effects

In a pilot study published in 2009, acupuncture was found to be effective for radiation-induced xerostomia (dry mouth). Previous research suggests that acupuncture may also help relieve radiation-induced insomnia and anxiety.

Safety Precautions for Acupuncture

Although acupuncture is generally considered safe, it may cause dizziness, local internal bleeding, dermatitis, nerve damage, and/or increased pain (especially when the acupuncturist is not well-trained).

If you're considering acupuncture for relief of cancer-related health problems, talk to your doctor about finding a practitioner with experience working with cancer patients.

Sources:

Alimi D, Rubino C, Pichard-Léandri E, Fermand-Brulé S, Dubreuil-Lemaire ML, Hill C. "Analgesic effect of auricular acupuncture for cancer pain: a randomized, blinded, controlled trial." J Clin Oncol. 2003 15;21(22):4120-6.

Ezzo J, Vickers A, Richardson MA, Allen C, Dibble SL, Issell B, Lao L, Pearl M, Ramirez G, Roscoe JA, Shen J, Shivnan J, Streitberger K, Treish I, Zhang G. "Acupuncture-point stimulation for chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting." J Clin Oncol. 2005 1;23(28):7188-98.

Garcia MK, Chiang JS, Cohen L, Liu M, Palmer JL, Rosenthal DI, Wei Q, Tung S, Wang C, Rahlfs T, Chambers MS. "Acupuncture for radiation-induced xerostomia in patients with cancer: a pilot study." Head Neck. 2009 31(10):1360-8.

Lu W. "Acupuncture for side effects of chemoradiation therapy in cancer patients." Semin Oncol Nurs. 2005 21(3):190-5.

Molassiotis A, Sylt P, Diggins H. "The management of cancer-related fatigue after chemotherapy with acupuncture and acupressure: a randomised controlled trial." Complement Ther Med. 2007 15(4):228-37.

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