Cancer Support

What is the history of the discovery and use of acupuncture as a complementary and alternative treatment for cancer?

The oldest known medical book in China (second century BC) describes the use of needles to treat medical problems. The use of the treatment spread to other Asian countries and to other regions of the world, including to Europe by the 1700s. In the United States, acupuncture has been used for about 200 years.

Research on acupuncture began in the United States in 1976. Twenty years later, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the acupuncture needle as a medical device. Many illnesses are treated with acupuncture. In cancer treatment, its main use is to control symptoms, including the following:

  • Pain
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy.
  • Weight loss
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Poor appetite
  • Dry mouth
  • Hot flashes
  • Nerve problems
  • Constipation and diarrhea
Acupuncture is usually used as an addition to conventional (standard) therapy for cancer patients.

What physical effects may acupuncture have when used in cancer patients?

Acupuncture may cause physical responses in nerve cells, the pituitary gland, and parts of the brain. These responses can cause the body to release proteins, hormones, and brain chemicals that control a number of body functions. It is proposed that, in this way, acupuncture affects blood pressure and body temperature, boosts immune system activity, and causes the body’s natural painkillers, such as endorphins, to be released.

Have any clinical trials (research studies with people) of acupuncture been conducted?

In 1997, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) began evaluating the safety and effectiveness of acupuncture as a complementary and alternative therapy.

  • Studies of the effect of acupuncture on the immune system
    Human studies on the effect of acupuncture on the immune system have been done.
  • Studies of the effect of acupuncture on pain

    In clinical studies, acupuncture reduced the amount of pain in some cancer patients. In one study, most of the patients treated with acupuncture were able to stop taking drugs for pain relief or to take smaller doses. The findings from these studies are not considered strong, however, because of weaknesses in study design and size. Studies using strict scientific methods are needed to prove how acupuncture affects pain.

  • Studies of the effect of acupuncture on muscle and joint pain from aromatase inhibitors

    Aromatase inhibitors, a type of hormone therapy for postmenopausal women who have hormone-dependent breast cancer, may cause muscle and joint pain. A randomized studyfound that true acupuncture was much more effective in relieving joint pain and stiffness than sham (inactive) acupuncture in patients taking aromatase inhibitors.

  • Studies of the effect of acupuncture on nausea and vomiting caused by cancer therapies

    The strongest evidence of the effect of acupuncture has come from clinical trials on the use of acupuncture to relieve nausea and vomiting. Several types of clinical trials using different acupuncture methods showed acupuncture reduced nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy, surgery, and morning sickness. It appears to be more effective in preventing vomiting than in reducing nausea.

    A study of acupuncture, vitamin B6 injections, or both for nausea and vomiting in patients treated with chemotherapy for ovarian cancer found that acupuncture and vitamin B6 together gave more relief from vomiting than acupuncture or vitamin B6 alone.

    A study of acupressure for relief of nausea and vomiting was done in women undergoing chemotherapy. The study found that acupressure applied to an acupuncture point with a wristband helped to decrease nausea and vomiting and reduced the amount of medicine the women used for those symptoms.

    A study of acupuncture for relief of nausea and vomiting was done in patients under going radiation therapy. Patients who received either true acupuncture or sham acupuncture were compared to patients who received standard care. The study found that patients in both the true and sham acupuncture groups developed less nausea and vomiting than those in the standard care group.

  • Studies of the effect of acupuncture on hot flashes in patients treated for cancer

    Hormone therapy may cause hot flashes in women with breast cancer and men with prostate cancer. Some studies have shown that acupuncture may be effective in relieving hot flashes in these patients.

  • Study of the effect of acupuncture on fatigue in patients treated for cancer

    Randomized studies of patients with cancer-related fatigue found that those who had a series of acupuncture treatments had less fatigue compared to those who had acupressure, sham acupressure, or information about managing fatigue.

  • Studies of the effect of acupuncture on xerostomia (dry mouth) in patients treated for cancer

    Clinical trials have been done to study the effect of acupuncture in the treatment and prevention of xerostomia (dry mouth) caused by radiation therapy given to patients withnasopharyngeal carcinoma and head and neck cancer.

    Two studies compared acupuncture with standard care for preventing xerostomia in patients being treated with radiation therapy. The studies found that patients treated with acupuncture had fewer symptoms and increased saliva flow.

    Compared to standard care, acupuncture markedly improves xerostomia symptoms in patients who have xerostomia after treatment with radiation therapy.

    A study on the long-term effects of acupuncture on xerostomia found that patients had notable differences in salivary flow at 6 months compared to before treatment. Patients who received additional acupuncture had increased saliva flow at 3 years compared to patients who did not continue acupuncture treatment.

  • Studies of the effect of acupuncture on other symptoms of cancer and side effects of cancer treatment

    The aim of most acupuncture clinical observation and clinical trials in cancer patients has been to study the effects of acupuncture on cancer symptoms and side effects caused by cancer treatment, including weight loss, cough, coughing up blood, anxiety, depression,proctitis, speech problems, blocked esophagus, hiccups, and fluid in the arms or legs. Studies have shown that, for many patients, treatment with acupuncture either relieves symptoms or keeps them from getting worse.

At Irvine Acupuncture we believe the degree of results from acupuncture is dependent on symptoms, clinical staging, timing of the encounter in the course of the illness, and areas of involvement. However, to answer the overall question, “Can acupuncture help with the side effects of cancer treatment?” in all probability, yes. Acupuncture can help ease the side effects in the care of cancer patients.

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