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Complementary and alternative therapy research

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This page tells you about research into complementary therapies and cancer care. You can find out about


Complementary therapy research in the UK

The Palliative and Supportive Care Clinical Studies Development Group set up by the National Cancer Research Institute encourages and oversees research into complementary therapies in the UK. It also plays a big part in helping to increase the amount of research into this area. The UK Clinical Research Network website has a UK clinical research database, which includes details of complementary therapy trials that are open and recruiting patients. There is a link to a guide for using the database at the top of the page.

You can find details of complementary therapy trials in the UK on our clinical trials database. Type 'complementary therapies' into the search box and tick the box for 'trials that have finished recruiting'. If you want to find out about research into a specific type of complementary or alternative therapy, look at the page about the specific type of therapy in our individual therapies section

Currently in the UK, studies are looking at

Apart from the studies we mention here, there are many other studies going on in universities, cancer centres and units around the UK. Many studies may be quite small, but bringing all their results together will help define the role of complementary therapies in cancer care.

Acupuncture and moxibustion to relieve lymphoedema

Lymphoedema is swelling caused by a build up of lymph fluid in the body. It can be a side effect of surgery or radiotherapy treatment if the lymph nodes that usually drain the fluid are removed or damaged. Lymphoedema can cause discomfort, pain and difficulty moving. There is no cure for lymphoedema, but treatments can relieve symptoms.

A small trial looked at acupuncture and moxibustion for lymphoedema. Acupuncture uses fine sterile needles which are put just under the skin at particular points (acupuncture points) on the body. In this trial, they did not put the acupuncture needles in the area affected by lymphoedema. Moxibustion uses a dried herb called mugwort which is rolled into a stick. The moxibustion practitioner holds the glowing end of the lit stick over acupuncture points to warm them.

The trial team found that acupuncture and moxibustion was safe for people with lymphoedema, especially when the needles are not put in the area of lymphoedema. The people taking part reported some improvement in their symptoms. The team suggest that more research is needed to see how much it could help improve symptoms.

Acupuncture for fatigue

In several hospitals a trial is looking at acupuncture for tiredness (fatigue). It wants to find out how well acupuncture and self acupuncture work in managing cancer related fatigue in breast cancer patients. You can find details of the acupuncture for fatigue trial on our clinical trials database.

Acupressure for nausea

Results from a recent study looking at acupressure to help relieve sickness due to chemotherapy showed that overall acupressure did not help. The research team were able to analyse the results of 372 out of the 500 people who took part. Everyone who took part had standard care to relieve sickness. Some people also wore an acupressure wrist band or a dummy wrist band (placebo). The people who wore either wrist band did feel less sick than those who didn't wear a wrist band, but the difference between the groups could have happened by chance (they were not statistically significant). When looking at how many people had been sick or felt anxious and how they rated their quality of life, the researchers found no difference between the groups. Although the researchers couldn't recommend the use of acupressure wrist bands to help with sickness after chemotherapy, they felt that some people may benefit from them and this would be useful to look at in other trials.

Acupuncture for a dry mouth

The Arix trial is a phase III trial testing whether group acupuncture can help with a dry mouth. It is for people who have a dry mouth due to radiotherapy for head and neck cancer. People in the trial have acupuncture treatment in a group setting. They also have information about other ways of coping with a dry mouth. The study is looking at whether the acupuncture makes people produce more saliva and whether it helps them to feel better. You can read about the Arix study on the UK Clinical Research Network website.

Complementary therapies and survival

The DietCompLyf study aims to find out if diet, complementary therapies and lifestyle factors have an effect on breast cancer survival. Breast cancer survival rates vary from country to country and researchers think this may be due to differences in diet and lifestyle. This study wants to find out how a group of chemicals found in plants, called phytoestrogens, affect survival after breast cancer. It also wants to find out whether having a healthy lifestyle and using complementary therapies could help to improve survival in people with breast cancer. The researchers will look at the diet and lifestyle of 3,000 women with breast cancer. It aims to find out whether phytoestrogens, lifestyle factors and using supplements affect whether breast cancer comes back (recurs) or gets worse (progresses).

Herbal medicines and cancer

One study is looking at the behaviour, beliefs, knowledge, information sources and needs of people with cancer who take herbal medicines. The study involves looking at all the research so far, creating a questionnaire and then doing a survey of patients. We have details of the herbal medicines and cancer study on our clinical trials database.

Another study is looking at the use of herbal medicine and dietary supplements by people with cancer. The researchers hope to learn more about the types of complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs) people with cancer are using, the potential risks and benefits and the possible interactions between herbal medicines and conventional cancer drugs.

Mindfulness based stress reduction for men with prostate cancer

One study is looking at whether mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) can reduce depression and anxiety in men having active surveillance for prostate cancer. There are details of the MBSR study on the UK Clinical Research Network website. 

Osteopathy treatment for pain after breast cancer surgery

An international trial is looking at whether osteopathy can help to reduce pain after breast cancer surgery. You can read about this trial on the clinical website

Reflexology for early breast cancer

The reflexology study is a randomised controlled trial looking at the effects of reflexology on quality of life. It wants to find out how reflexology affects mood, adjustment to cancer, physical functioning coping, and the immune system for women with early breast cancer. Click on this link to find details of the reflexology study on the UK Clinical Research Network website.

Spiritual beliefs study

The spiritual beliefs study aims to find out what effect spiritual beliefs have on the mood and quality of life of people with advanced cancer. It is a small study in the London area. You can find details of the spiritual beliefs study on our clinical trials database.


International complementary and alternative therapy research

In the USA the National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has a database of complementary and alternative therapy clinical trials. It includes trials for people with different types of cancer that aim to help to control the side effects of cancer and its treatments. Although these are not UK trials, we have included a link to NCCAM because the trials may be of interest to some people seeking information from around the world. Also in the USA, the Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine (OCCAM) has information about recent trials into CAMs.

You can find out about some European CAM research on the European Information Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine website.

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Updated: 2 January 2013