Acupuncture and Cancer Care

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) Therapies: How Can Acupuncture Impact Cancer Care?

By Leah Felderman BA MA  
Updated: 01/31/2020  
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acupuncture as a complementary alternative medicine therapy Photo by NYCTCM on flickr

Complementary alternative medicine (CAM) is alternative medicine used in conjunction with standard treatments. Standard cancer care treatments may include radiation, surgery, and pharmaceuticals. Alternative medicine can include special diets, vitamins, herbal supplements, acupuncture, chiropractic medicine, and therapies such as magnet, massage, and aromatherapy. An example of CAM is a special diet being implemented with the daily dose of a prescription pharmaceutical to help combat migraines, or acupuncture in conjunction with radiation to address a tumor growth. Acupuncture is one of the most widely practiced CAMs utilized in conjunction with cancer care.

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What Is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is an alternative Eastern medicine practice. Eastern medicine (also known as Chinese medicine, Oriental medicine, and Traditional Chinese medicine) is relatively new to us in the US yet has stood the test of time throughout the world. Chinese medicine is defined as:

A medical system that has been used for thousands of years to prevent, diagnose, and treat disease. It is based on the belief that Qi (the body's vital energy) flows along meridians (channels) in the body and keeps a person’s spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical health in balance. Traditional Chinese medicine aims to restore the body’s balance and harmony between the natural opposing forces of yin and yang, which can block qi and cause disease.[1]

Acupuncture subscribes to the beliefs that the human body has more than 2,000 acupuncture points connected by pathways.[2] These pathways support and sustain the Qi (energy flow) throughout the body that is responsible for one’s life, health, sickness, and death. Disruption of the energy flow can cause disease but application of acupuncture to particular points, helps improve the flow of Qi, thereby improving health.

Acupuncture is the practice of penetrating the skin with thin, solid, metallic needles. Treatment can then be further enhanced through gentle and specific movements of the practitioner's hands, heat, and/or with electrical stimulation. 

A Brief History of Acupuncture

The basis of modern acupuncture was established during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) although it has been traced back as far as the 6th century.[3] Acupuncture was recorded first in Europe in 1810 and in 1997 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) acknowledged acupuncture as an effective therapy for a wide range of health conditions.[4] More than 40 states now have licensing and certification training for acupuncture practice, and most states now require a national examination.[5] 

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Acupuncture and Cancer Care

How can acupuncture impact cancer care? While most Western oncologists don’t subscribe to the Chinese medicine beliefs of Qi and the balance of yin and yang, there are widely accepted Western theories as to how and why the ancient practice of acupuncture works. One theory is that acupuncture points stimulate the central nervous system; in turn chemicals are released into the muscles, spinal cord, and brain.[6] These stimulations encourage the body's natural healing abilities, both physical and emotional.

The impact of acupuncture is wide ranging:[7]

In addition to the above purported impacts to one’s health and well-being, a few dozen of the above acupuncture benefits are widely accepted by the Western medical community, with scientific backing and studies, and accepted as effective CAM treatments. Most common in conjunction with cancer care is the use of acupuncture to help with nausea and vomiting, post-operative pain, cancer related pain, chemotherapy-induced leukopenia, post-chemotherapy fatigue, xerostomia, insomnia, anxiety, and quality of life.[8]

acupuncture meridians cancer care Illustrations by Andreas Cleyer on Wikimedia Commons

How Does It Work?

The skin is penetrated with thin, solid, disposable, metallic needles. Needles (classified as medical instruments by the FDA since 1995) that are slightly thicker than a human hair are inserted into the skin at acupoints.[9]Needles are placed based on specific ailments or to enhance overall health. Needles are left in for a prescribed amount of time for the session. Treatment can then be further enhanced through gentle and specific movements of the practitioner's hands, heat, and/or with electrical stimulation.

Eastern medicine holds the belief that the human body has more than 2,000 acupuncture points connected by pathways.[10]These pathways support and sustain the Qi (energy flow) throughout the body that is responsible for one’s life, health, sickness, and death. Disruption of the energy flow can cause disease but application of acupuncture to particular points, helps improve the flow of Qi, thereby improving health.

Western medicine subscribes to the theory that acupuncture points stimulate the central nervous system; in turn chemicals are released into the muscles, spinal cord, and brain.[11] These stimulations encourage the body's natural healing abilities, both physical and emotional.

Does it Work?

Yes! Populations of people across the world and across the centuries have entrusted their health to this ancient Chinese practice.

Most common in conjunction with cancer care is the use of acupuncture to help with nausea and vomiting, post-operative pain, cancer related pain, chemotherapy-induced leukopenia, post-chemotherapy fatigue, xerostomia, insomnia, anxiety, and quality of life.[12]

What To Expect

In cancer patients, special considerations must be made in regards to acupuncture. Cancer and/or cancer treatments may have altered the body’s anatomical structures. Cancer patients may be prone to infection and/or bleeding which makes needling certain points not advisable. In addition, acupuncture should not be performed on certain patients including: those with a recent organ transplant, recent stem cell transplant, recent radiotherapy treatment, recently developed cardiac arrhythmia, recent open wound, and/or recent infection(s).[13]

Acupuncture should be painless. Sometimes nothing at all is felt as the needle is placed, othertimes a light needle pricking may be felt. Sharp pain should not be felt at any point; this is indicatitive of incorrect placement or procedure. Patients may feel soreness or a weighted sensation at the needle sites after the acupuncture session. Some patients feel relaxed after a session, others may feel energized.

Acupuncture is an important complementary alternative medicine (CAM) practice that can be easily and usefully incorporated as a component of care. Acupuncture is not expected to treat cancer directly,yet at its most valuable it is proven to reduce many common symptoms experienced by cancer patients including nausea and pain management.

Acupuncture can positively contribute to a patient’s quality of life. The procedure can be performed in the comfort of a patient’s home and is likely even covered by insurance when incorporated as part of a patient’s comprehensive cancer care plan.

 

Sources:
[1] “Dictionary of Cancer Terms.” National Institute of Healthwww.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/western-medicine. Accessed 15 July 2019.
[2] “What Is Acupuncture?” John Hopkins Medicinewww.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/acupuncture. Accessed 25 August 2019.
[3] “A Look Back at the History of Acupuncture.” Acupuncture Massage Collegewww.amcollege.edu/blog/history-of-acupuncture. Accessed 25 August 2019.
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid
[6] “What Is Acupuncture?” John Hopkins Medicinewww.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/acupuncture. Accessed 25 August 2019.
[7] Ibid
[8] Lu, Weidong et al. “The value of acupuncture in cancer care.” Hematology/oncology clinics of North America vol. 22,4 (2008): 631-48, viii. doi:10.1016/j.hoc.2008.04.005.
[9] “A Look Back at the History of Acupuncture.” Acupuncture Massage Collegewww.amcollege.edu/blog/history-of-acupuncture. Accessed 25 August 2019.
[10] “What Is Acupuncture?” John Hopkins Medicinewww.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/acupuncture. Accessed 25 August 2019.
[11] “What Is Acupuncture?” John Hopkins Medicinewww.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/acupuncture. Accessed 25 August 2019.
[12] Lu, Weidong et al. “The value of acupuncture in cancer care.” Hematology/oncology clinics of North America vol. 22,4 (2008): 631-48, viii. doi:10.1016/j.hoc.2008.04.005. Accessed 25 August 2019.
[13] Deng, Gary. “Acupuncture in Cancer Care.” www.cancernetwork.com/integrative-oncology/acupuncture-cancer-care/page/0/1. Accessed 25 August 2019.

*This article wasn't sponsored and doesn't contain affiliate links.

Leah Felderman BA MA
 

About the Author

Leah Felderman is a proud alumnus of University of Central Florida (BA) and San Diego State University (MA). She has worn many occupational hats including teaching, hospitality management, government contractor and non-profit organizer. She is an intrepid international traveler having visited over 60 countries before happily settling down into her new life chapter of domesticity as a mom and Coast Guard wife.



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