Acupuncture, which has been practiced as a part of Chinese medicine for thousands of years, is based on the belief that energy flows through the body in channels known as meridians. According to Chinese medical theory, illness arises from the blockage of energy in these meridians, thus creating an imbalanced state of health. Therefore, fine needles are inserted at specific acupoints on the body to help reverse blockage and restore the body back to a state of balance and harmony. Acupuncture is used to influence the body systemically, as well as holistically.
Animal and human studies have shown positive response to acupuncture in relieving pain, regulating hormones, improving mood, modulating blood pressure and heart rate, reducing inflammation, and boosting immune function. In China, acupuncture has long been used in conjunction with standard treatments for cancer. In the United States, several major medical centers, including Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and Dana-Farber Harvard Cancer Center in Boston, have incorporated acupuncture as a supportive therapy for cancer patients in the management of cancer-related symptoms and treatment of side effects induced by surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or hormone therapy.
There have been numerous studies on acupuncture and supportive cancer management. For example, acupuncture has been proven to reduce postsurgical or chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. It also has been shown to help reduce pain, swelling, and inflammation. One study indicated that acupuncture is just as effective as an antidepressant at reducing side effects, such as fatigue, hot flashes, menopausal symptoms, and mood swings, associated with using hormone therapy for breast cancer. Acupuncture has also been shown to help with nerve pain and tingling due to chemotherapy-induced neuropathy, mouth dryness and ulceration from radiation therapy, lymphedema, insomnia, stimulating appetite, and regulating bowel functions. However, further research is necessary to look into the effectiveness of acupuncture in treating these conditions.
Acupuncture is generally safe when performed by a trained, licensed practitioner. Sterile, stainless steel needles are carefully inserted into the body at specific acupoints at various depths and angles. The needles are solid and very thin. In fact, the acupuncture needle is 100 times thinner than a typical medical syringe. The needles are usually left in for 15-30 minutes, depending on the condition being treated. Occasionally heat or a small current may be painlessly applied to the needles to help stimulate them.
Complications of acupuncture are rare but may include mild local pain and minor bleeding or bruising under the skin. If you have a severely weakened immune system or low blood or platelet counts, it is important to first consult with your hematologist/oncologist prior to receiving acupuncture. Non-needling acupuncture methods, such as acupressure (massaging of acupoints) and moxibustion (applying heat over the skin above the acupoints), are alternative treatment options for those who may not tolerate needling.
Acupuncture is a proven, clinically effective supportive therapy to cancer management. It is generally safe and well-tolerated with minimal side effects. Acupuncture improves quality of life by helping the body reset and strengthen itself, which results in the decrease of side effects caused by cancer or cancer therapy.