The healing benefits of acupuncture have been used in the treatment of a number of ailments for 4,000 years. As a form of ancient Chinese medicine, the process involves the application of small, sterile needles into targeted areas of the skin.
The principle behind acupuncture is tied closely to the idea that a vital energy, referred to as qi by the Chinese, flows through all of our bodies. Diseases and ailments can disrupt this healthy flow of energy and, through the use of acupuncture, an individual can re-open these crucial energy passageways.
Though considered an alternative form of medicine, many studies have verified the benefits of acupuncture as a complementary treatment process for cancer. Additionally, such esteemed organizations as the National Institutes for Health (NIH) have come forward to endorse acupuncture as an effective solution for palliative cancer care.
Acupuncture and Cancer Treatment
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of acupuncture needles for medical purposes in 1996. In terms of cancer treatment, the procedure is typically used as a means of pain management. Specifically, those who experience severe pain, nausea or vomiting as a side effect of chemotherapy are the most likely to benefit from acupuncture. In 1997, an NIH investigative panel made a public statement that “there is clear evidence that needle acupuncture treatment is effective for postoperative and chemotherapy nausea and vomiting.”
Other quality-of-life symptoms may also be reduced through the procedure. These include anxiety, stress, depression, insomnia and poor appetite. In some cases, acupuncture may also be used to help improve blood cell count or boost a patient’s immune system response.
Acupuncture is not meant to serve as a sole treatment for cancer. Rather, it is generally recommended as a complementary treatment to more traditional methods, such as radiation and chemotherapy.
The Science Behind Acupuncture
Since receiving endorsements by the FDA and NIH, much research into the effectiveness of acupuncture as a cancer treatment has taken place. While exact causes of pain relief are still being researched, previous studies indicate that acupuncture needles stimulate both sensory neurons and the central nervous system. Some research also suggests that stimulation of the hypothalamus and pituitary gland may improve blood flow and boost the production of helpful hormones, peptides and neurotransmitters.
Furthermore, animal cancer studies have shown that acupuncture spurs blood cell production and lymphocyte activity. The end result of these processes is an increase in immune functions. In relation to pain management, acupuncture may serve as an anti-inflammatory procedure by mediating pain-sensory modifiers such as cytokines, neuropeptides and neurotransmitters.
The Acupuncture Procedure
It is not uncommon for cancer patients to feel nervous about undergoing acupuncture treatments. However, it should be noted that the application of acupuncture needles typically does not cause pain for an individual. Rather, most individuals merely report a slight tingling sensation.
Most states require acupuncturists to receive certification from the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM). Many cancer treatment facilities provide these licensed professionals as an option to patients. In such cases, the procedures are performed within the hospital or treatment center. Regardless of where you receive your treatment, it is recommended that you choose an acupuncturist that has specialized experience in treating cancer.
Prior to your first procedure, your acupuncturist will interview you to learn about your basic health, lifestyle and medical history. The goal of this preliminary interview is to determine if you are a good candidate for acupuncture, as the procedure may not be suitable for everyone.
If you are deemed a good candidate, then you will likely be scheduled to receive one to two treatments a week. Typically, it takes five to six sessions before any palliative response is felt.
For each acupuncture treatment, you will likely be asked to lie down with your back to the table. The acupuncturist will then insert four to ten sterile needles into key points in your body. Once inserted, a small electrical current may be attached to each needle in order to maximize stimulation. The length of insertion may vary, but in general you can expect the procedure to last 20 to 30 minutes.
Acupuncture Side Effects
The majority of acupuncture patients experience no side effects whatsoever. However, dizziness may sometimes occur after the procedure. This most frequently occurs after a patient’s initial treatment session. For this reason, it is generally recommended that patients not plan on partaking in physical activities immediately following the procedure. It may also be a good idea to have a friend or family member drive you home from the procedure.
Other, less frequent, side effects of acupuncture include bleeding or bruising at the needle site, infection and heart damage. These side effects may be elevated if you have low blood counts, a history of heart valve problems, a pacemaker or are pregnant. Individuals who have been diagnosed with lymphoedema (poor lymph drainage) are also not good candidates for acupuncture.
Sources for information on this page: National Cancer Institute, CancerHelp UK