Can Acupuncture Help Relieve Cancer Pain and Other Side Effects?

November 29, 2016
Scott Ling, MD

Dr. Scott Ling is the Chief Chinese Medicine Practitioner and Acupuncturist and the founder of Sustain Health in Melbourne, Australia. Dr. Ling has a special interest in cancer care and has extensive experience in treating cancer with Chinese medicine and acupuncture.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and acupuncture have been practiced for more than 3,000 years. In some parts of the world, acupuncture is used to treat many ailments. According to the National Cancer Institute, “acupuncture applies needles, heat, pressure, and other treatments to certain places on the skin, called acupuncture points (or acupoints), to cause a change in the physical functions of the body.” 

There’s a growing body of research on acupuncture and more is being discovered each day. Acupuncture and TCM can be used to treat and help manage chronic health conditions and a number of symptoms. More recently, acupuncture is being considered as an additional pain management option for people with cancer receiving chemotherapy or surgery and for many common side effects after cancer treatment, such as hot flashes, chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, and xerostomia (dry mouth).

How does acupuncture work?

According to TCM theory, acupuncture treatment influences life force energy, called qi or chi, that flows through the body along channels called meridians. share on twitter  The flow of qi through the meridians indicates a person's health. If there is a disruption in one’s qi, acupuncture is used to restore the flow and bring the person back in “balance” and to optimal health.

Neuroscience research suggests that acupuncture works by modifying the nervous system through stimulation of specific points throughout the body. The application of very fine needles to these points, or needling, releases neurotransmitters, like endorphins and serotonin, that relieve pain and stimulate feelings of well-being.

The most common form of acupuncture involves the placement of solid, sterile, thin, stainless steel needles into various points on the body. Different techniques can be used to stimulate the needles. The 3 key methods used in acupuncture to stimulate the needles include manual stimulation, electrical stimulation, and application of heat.

  1. Manual Stimulation: Twisting, turning, and pulling the needle up and down after insertion.

  2. Electrical Stimulation: Sending electrical pulses to the needles at different frequencies and waveforms using a handheld device.

  3. Heat Stimulation: Traditionally, moxa (a dried herb) is placed on the top of the needles and burned. In modern use, infrared heat sources are used to warm up the needles.

Acupuncture in cancer treatment and survivorship

Recent medical research in the United States has shown that acupuncture appears to be a safe and effective supplemental treatment for people who experience certain symptoms of cancer. It can also help manage some side effects of treatment, including chemotherapy, surgery, radiation therapy, and hormone therapy.

For instance, a study of 302 people with breast cancer found that acupuncture was helpful in managing a large range of cancer symptoms over a 6-week period. These symptoms included mental fatigue, physical pain, anxiety, and depression.

Acupuncture also appears to help with:

  • Nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy

  • Xerostomia related to radiation therapy

  • Hot flashes related to hormone treatment

  • Joint pain related to aromatase inhibitor therapy

  • Physical pain

Some interesting research has looked at using acupuncture to treat peripheral neuropathy, constipation, loss of appetite, fatigue, insomnia and other sleep disorders, dyspnea (breathing difficulties), anxiety, depression, and leucopenia (low white blood cell count).

Although acupuncture is generally safe for patients of all ages when provided by well-trained practitioners, there are key areas of caution for some patients. If you are considering acupuncture, tell the practitioner everything about your medical history before starting treatment.

  • Bleeding: Do not receive acupuncture if you have a bleeding disorder, low platelet counts, or take blood thinners. Your doctor can tell you what levels of blood counts are safe for receiving acupuncture.

  • Infection: You should not receive acupuncture if you have low white blood cell counts because you have a higher risk of infection. 

  • Lymphedema: If you have had lymph nodes removed, often under the arm, do not have needles inserted in that area. There are concerns that acupuncture in the area could increase the risk of infection, although studies are examining that risk and the potential benefits of acupuncture in treating lymphedema.