Acupuncture may help with the side effects of cancer and its treatment. There is evidence that it works for some symptoms. But we need more research.
- Acupuncture is an East Asian medicine used in Western medicine.
- It can work in sickness caused by chemotherapy.
- It can work for some other symptoms.
- Side effects are rare.
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture involves putting fine needles into the body at particular points. The needles stay in place for a short time. The practitioner then removes it.
Acupuncture first started in traditional East Asian medicine. It became an important part of Chinese medicine about 2000 years ago. But we now know how it works in scientific terms as well.
Ancient Chinese medicine suggests that energy called Qi flows through the body. It moves along channels called meridians. Acupuncture alters this flow to restore or optimise good health.
Western medical acupuncture is a modern interpretation of acupuncture based on scientific research. Practitioners give treatments following a medical diagnosis. They can give it alongside conventional cancer treatments. These include cancer drugs or radiotherapy.
Acupuncture is used to treat a wide range of pain conditions and some other symptoms. Many doctors train in Western medical acupuncture. Other qualified health professionals also often train to use acupuncture alongside anti cancer treatments.
Why people with cancer use it
Medical research shows that acupuncture works by stimulating nerves. It releases the natural morphine-like substances (endorphins) in the spinal cord and brain. This relieves pain. Acupuncture also releases serotonin. Serotonin is a pain reliever which can promote a feeling of wellbeing. The release of these substances can reduce cancer symptoms.
People with cancer might have acupuncture to relieve sickness. This can be because of chemotherapy or other cancer drugs.
Acupuncture is available in most hospitals, hospices and clinics. Your doctor might refer you to have acupuncture because you have pain or other symptoms such as:
- tiredness and weakness (fatigue)
- a dry mouth
- hot flushes due to anti cancer treatments
People say that acupuncture also helps them to feel relaxed. And it improves their feeling of wellbeing.
How you have it
Your practitioner will ask you general questions about your health and lifestyle. This can include how you're sleeping and eating. It might also be on how you’re feeling both physically and emotionally.
Tell your practitioner about:
- any health problems you have
- any medicines you take
- the cancer symptoms you have
- the treatment side effects you have
They might need to change the treatment to suit your specific needs.
Discuss how many treatments you will need before you start having it because it will vary. Your practitioner might recommend that you have treatments once or twice a week at first.
You might need to go back every few weeks for a top up treatment if you have a chronic condition. You are likely to see an improvement in about 3 to 6 sessions if acupuncture is going to help you.
Treatment usually starts with only a few needles. This might change depending on your response. And the symptoms that you have.
The practitioner puts fine, stainless steel, disposable needles in through your skin.
The needles shouldn’t cause pain, but you might feel a tingling sensation. They are left in place for between 10 to 30 minutes.
The practitioner might flick or turn the needles to stimulate your nerves. Or, they might attach a weak electrical current to the needles once they are in. This is called electroacupuncture.
Sometimes the practitioner will leave a special type of very small needle in the skin. This is to give ongoing symptom relief.
With ear (auricular) acupuncture the practitioner places needles or small beads (acupressure beads) onto the outer part of the ear. The beads might stay in place for a few days.
Your practitioner may also teach you a specific way of doing acupuncture yourself at home.
Check with your doctor before you start using any type of complementary or alternative treatment. Make sure your acupuncture practitioner knows your full medical and drug history. Discuss this at every visit, especially if anything has changed.
Finding a practitioner
You can have acupuncture in:
- cancer hospitals
- cancer clinics
- GP practices
It is worth asking if it is available to you on the NHS. Many nurses, GPs, physiotherapists and hospital doctors have had training in acupuncture.
You can find a reliable acupuncture practitioner through the British Acupuncture Council. It has high standards for its registered members. It will make sure that you receive treatment from a highly qualified acupuncturist. They usually have undertaken a 3 year BSc honours acupuncture degree.
Acupuncture is generally safe and gives very few side effects. That is if it is done by a professional and qualified practitioner. The most common side effect is minor bleeding and bruising. This happens to between 1 and 10 in 100 people (1 to 10%).
Some people have uncommon side effects which can include:
- a temporary short term increase in pain symptoms followed by a decrease in pain
- feeling dizzy or faint which rarely happens if you lie down to have the treatment
Acupuncture can have serious side effects. This might be a punctured lung or severe infection. But this is very rare and happens in fewer than 1 in 10,000 treatments.
Research into acupuncture for cancer
There is no evidence to show that acupuncture can help treat or cure cancer. But it can help relieve some cancer symptoms and side effects from treatment.
Research into acupuncture for cancer focuses on treating:
- chemotherapy related sickness
- anxiety and stress
- depression and mood changes
- quality of life
- hot flushes
Most studies show that acupuncture is better than no treatment at all. And that it is as good as, or better than, standard treatment for these symptoms and side effects.
Because studies in people with cancer are often small, it is difficult to be entirely sure of the results. We must compare any evidence that acupuncture might help with standard treatment. This helps us to understand how it can help alongside conventional treatment. So, we need large, well-designed studies to help us learn more.
Some research reviews have shown positive results for acupuncture in controlling pain.
Several small studies showed that acupuncture can help with joint pain and stiffness. Joint pain is a common side effect of aromatase inhibitors. These are a type of hormone treatment for breast cancer.
In 2015, researchers looked at trials using acupuncture for cancer pain. They found that it was not possible to tell if acupuncture had helped. This was because of problems with the trial designs.
Another recent review in 2021 found that acupuncture and painkillers helped to reduce pain. This was compared to using painkillers alone.
Acupressure uses fingers to press on pressure points around the body. This is supposed to relieve pain in muscles. Some research has been done into acupressure and pain control for cancer pain. These studies were unreliable as they only had small numbers.
A systematic review in 2017 looked at the use of complementary therapies. This means that a group of experts gather all the evidence about a particular subject. They then go through it to work out whether there is any evidence to support it. The review was in people with breast cancer. It showed that acupuncture had a small benefit in treating pain.
Several studies looked at how acupuncture could help with nausea and vomiting when it was due to chemotherapy. In the studies, many people wore acupressure wrist bands (acubands). The wrist bands apply pressure to acupuncture points on the wrist. Most of these studies showed that acupressure might help with nausea and vomiting. But more good quality evidence was needed.
Another form of acupuncture is called auricular therapy. This is also called ear acupuncture. This uses needles in the ear to help with different symptoms. One of these is nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy. A study showed that more evidence is needed before saying it works.
A systematic review in 2017 looked at acupuncture in people with breast cancer. It showed that doctors could use acupuncture with other anti-sickness medication. And that it could have a real benefit in helping with nausea and vomiting.
A small study has looked at using acupuncture to reduce symptoms of peripheral neuropathy. Symptoms may include:
- sensation changes in the hands and feet
The study had a positive result, but it only had 47 patients take part.
The ACUFOCIN trial is looking at acupuncture for people with peripheral neuropathy. This is for people who have had chemotherapy for:
- a type of blood cancer called myeloma
- breast cancer
- gastro intestinal cancer such as stomach cancer
- ovarian cancer
The team found in this small trial, that adding a 10 week course of acupuncture to usual treatment helped. It improved the symptoms of peripheral neuropathy that chemotherapy can cause.
Hot flushes and sweats are a common side effect of treatment. This is in people having treatment for breast, prostate or womb cancers.
Several studies have had varying results on the use of acupuncture for hot flushes.
A 2013 review of acupuncture trials with 281 people found that there was not enough evidence to say that it can help with hot flushes. It concluded that we need more research.
The AcCliMaT study in 2016 was with people with breast cancer. They had hot flushes. It found that people who had acupuncture, had fewer symptoms.
A review study in 2017 said that acupuncture had a small effect on improving hot flushes. This study was also in people with breast cancer.
Lymphoedema is swelling caused by a build-up of lymph fluid. It can be a side effect of surgery or radiotherapy treatment. During surgery the surgeon may remove the lymph nodes which usually drain the fluid. Radiotherapy can cause scarring to the lymph nodes.
Lymphoedema can cause discomfort, pain and difficulty moving. There is no cure for lymphoedema, but treatments can relieve symptoms.
Korean researchers did a systematic review in 2018. This means that a group of experts gather all the evidence about a particular subject. They then go through it to work out whether there is any evidence to support it. The review looked at the benefits of acupuncture in traditional Korean medicine for people with lymphoedema. People in all the studies had breast cancer. They found that they need more research to see if acupuncture works.
Tiredness (fatigue) after chemotherapy is hard to manage and can have a big effect on your life. It sometimes lasts for years.
However, another meta analysis in 2017 found acupuncture and acupressure did not reduce fatigue in cancer patients. This analysis looked into 12 trials for acupuncture and acupressure.
Researchers did another review study in 2017. It was looking at people with breast cancer. The study found that acupuncture might have a small effect on tiredness.
Acupuncture is used for a dry mouth (xerostomia). This is in people having radiotherapy for head and neck cancers. Some people have it for pain and dry mouth after neck surgery or a dry mouth in advanced cancer.
A review study in 2021 said that acupuncture was a safe treatment. It suggested that doctors could use it as a complementary therapy in palliative care. This is if the usual treatments didn’t work. Palliative care means having treatment that helps to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life.
In 2013, a small trial looked at how 145 patients felt after having a course of acupuncture to help with dry mouth. These patients had had radiotherapy to their head and neck. They found it made a difference. And gave patients relief from their dry mouth.
A systematic review study in 2018 looked at how well acupuncture worked for a dry mouth caused by different conditions. It included a dry mouth caused by radiotherapy treatment for cancer. The researchers found that there was not enough evidence to say that acupuncture is a treatment for a dry mouth.
Several small studies have looked into acupuncture or acupressure for cancer related breathlessness.
A 2020 review found some evidence that acupuncture might help relieve breathlessness. This was when it was due to advanced cancer. We need bigger, good quality trials before we can know for sure.
Researchers looked at acupuncture and morphine as a treatment for breathlessness. They compared:
- a combination of the two
They found that acupuncture, morphine and the combination helped to relieve breathlessness. Acupuncture also relieved anxiety. They suggested that it was a good alternative to morphine.
Several studies have looked at how acupuncture can help to reduce anxiety or mood changes. A review of studies in 2013 found no evidence that it can help. It suggested that we need better-designed studies to find out.
A review study in 2017 found that acupuncture could have a small benefit in helping with anxiety.
Several studies have looked at whether acupuncture can help people with cancer sleep better. A review of studies in 2017 found that at the moment there is not enough evidence. It suggested that we need more research.
Some people think that acupuncture works because of a placebo effect. The placebo effect means that people feel the treatment helps, even though it makes no difference. This is because they believe that it will work.
The benefits might just be due to having the therapist's full attention. Or it could be from the chance to lie down and relax and knowing that the therapist is listening.
Some studies have compared true acupuncture with sham acupuncture to look into this. Sham acupuncture uses a special needle that does not penetrate the skin.
Some studies showed that the real acupuncture works better than the sham acupuncture. This was for some symptoms. Others showed no difference.
How much it costs
Most people who have acupuncture have to pay for it themselves. But, acupuncture is being used more and more within the NHS.
If you have private healthcare, ask them if they cover acupuncture. Some of them do.
A word of caution
Make sure that the person who treats you has had proper training. They should have experience in using acupuncture for people with cancer.
Do not go for treatment at shops on the high street. The practitioners there might not be familiar with treating cancer. Many traditional Chinese acupuncturists use herbs alongside acupuncture. Some of the herbs can interact with cancer treatments and stop them from working so well.