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 belief that to be healthy, there must be a balance of yin and yang in the body. If an imbalance occurs, the normal flow of energy (qi) is disrupted and disease may occur.
During an acupuncture session, practitioners use needles placed along the energy fields of the body (meridians) to re-balance the body’s energies.
Once an uncommon practice in the United States, a 2007 national health interview study estimated that 1.4 percent of the population currently uses acupuncture. In 1997, the National Institutes of Health issued a statement endorsing acupuncture for several health conditions.
How Acupuncture Is Used for People With Cancer
The terminology regarding “alternative medicine” practices, such as acupuncture, can be very confusing. In cancer centers, acupuncture is used as an “integrative” or “complementary” treatment. This means that acupuncture is used along with conventional treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy to treat cancer.
Acupuncture is still in its infancy when it comes to studies looking at benefits for cancer patients, but some reliable studies to date suggest that it may help with:
- 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. Since fatigue related to cancer and cancer treatments is one of the more annoying symptoms, this is encouraging information.
- 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 the nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy. While some oncologists recommend avoiding acupuncture after chemotherapy due to an increased risk of infection, acupuncture may be done before a chemotherapy session to help prevent nausea.
- 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 medications needed, and consequently some of the side effects of those pain medicines. Recent studies also suggest that that acupuncture is helpful for chronic pain as well.
- Depression and anxiety. Preliminary studies have found that acupuncture may reduce both depression and anxiety in cancer patients.
- Sleep. At least one study to date found that people with cancer who underwent acupuncture had an improvement in their quality of sleep.
- Chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy. Acupuncture hasn’t been used widely for the annoying symptom of chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, but one small study did show that people who underwent acupuncture had a lessened need for pain medications to control their symptoms.
- Immune Function. Acupuncture may also have a positive influence on immune function in people with cancer. Whether this could, in turn, 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 work directly on nerve cells, altering the transmission of neurotransmitters, or it may work directly on the brain. In that role, it might result in the release of endorphins, pain-relieving chemicals produced in the brain.
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. Your oncologist may suggest doing acupuncture either before, or after you are at most risk for infection from the needles. 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 doing acupuncture, your acupuncturist will ask you about your current health. She will also wish to examine you, especially your tongue. In traditional Chinese medicine, it’s felt that many conditions and your general health can be evaluated by examining your tongue (called tongue diagnosis).
After having you dress in a gown (depending upon the clothes you are wearing), she will have you lie down on a comfortable table. She will then place between 5 and 20 needles in your body after wiping the areas with alcohol, sometimes twirling these slightly as they are placed. It may sound uncomfortable, but the needles that are used are paper thin and most people feel very little discomfort. These 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.
Other forms of acupuncture may involve the use of an electrical current applied to the needles (electrostimulation), burning herbs and applying the heat to specific points on the body (moxibustion), or applying a warm cup to create suction at particular points (cupping).
Complications of acupuncture are rare, but may include:
- Bruising – especially if your platelet count is low due to chemotherapy or the cancer itself
- Damage to organs – This 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 a complementary therapy for people with cancer. If not, check with your oncologist to see if she knows of an acupuncturist she would recommend. You might also check with friends in your cancer support group, or search for someone in your area via the resources below:
- Academy of Medical Acupuncturists. This site allows you to search for medical doctors who provide acupuncture services.
- Acufinder.com. This site enables you to search for clinics that provide acupuncture worldwide.
Several insurance companies now cover 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.
It’s hard to really assess how helpful acupuncture is for people with cancer since it hasn’t been studied to the degree that other treatments have. Clinical trials are in progress studying possible roles, such as the effect of acupuncture on chronic post-chemotherapy fatigue, a possible benefit for people with chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, and as a useful tool for sleep disruption in cancer survivors.
Other Alternative Therapies
There are several alternative therapies that are being used in an integrative fashion along with conventional treatments for cancer.