Acupuncture for cancer pain management

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager, Oncology Social Work

JANUARY 23, 2020

Cancer patient receives acupuncture treatment

Among the many so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies, acupuncture is probably the best known and most-widely used. I have known many patients who found acupuncture helpful during cancer treatment to manage nausea and fatigue, relieve stress, minimize hot flashes, and contribute to a generally better sense of well-being.

Acupuncture has been valued in traditional Chinese medicine for more than 3,000 years. In many parts of the world, it is used to treat all kinds of physical and emotional ailments. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) theory suggests that acupuncture influences the life force energy or chi that flows throughout our bodies. The disruption of the natural flow can result in any number of physical problems. Acupuncture is used to return the flow to normal and bring the individual back to balance.

Neuroscience research finds that acupuncture modifies the nervous system's work through the stimulation of specific points throughout the body. Applying very fine needles, or pressure in acupressure, releases neurotransmitters, such as endorphins or serotonin, that can relieve pain.

I have also known people who found acupuncture helpful in treating chemotherapy-associated peripheral neuropathy. This is the tingling, pain, loss of sensation, or numbness in hands and feet that can be a side effect of some chemo drugs, including Abraxane, the Taxanes, Navelbine, and Vincristine. These drugs can damage nerves and affect the ways that those nerves send signals to our bodies. Neuropathy can happen fairly quickly when treatment begins or may not begin until some months have passed. I have known a few people whose problems began after chemo itself was concluded. It is important to tell your doctor if you are experiencing any symptoms as there may be changes considered in your treatment doses or even medications.

A recent study published online in JAMA Oncology found that acupuncture and acupressure may reduce pain in cancer patients and reduce the need for pain drugs, including opioids. This study, a systematic review of 17 clinical trials and a meta-analysis of 14 other trials, noted a significant association between acupuncture and a reduction in pain.

It has been estimated that up to 70% of cancer patients experience pain at some point during their treatment. This ranges from surgical pain to side effects of radiation to pain caused by the cancer itself. Pain is often inadequately reported and treated, and the current opioid crisis has made pain management even more complicated.

One conclusion of the study is that acupuncture should be part of the standard medical management of pain. In considering the possible treatments, including drugs, doctors should think about the potential value of acupuncture. One real problem is that most insurance does not cover the cost of acupuncture treatments, and, to be effective, it needs to be ongoing. As an example, a study of the value of acupuncture for women experiencing neuropathy after breast cancer treatment found that the largest benefit was for women who had treatment two to three times per week for the duration of their symptoms.

Have you used acupuncture for pain or other symptoms? Join the BIDMC Cancer Community and share your story.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
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