- Manual acupuncture
For Patients & Caregivers
How It Works
Acupuncture is effective in treating chronic pain and some symptoms associated with cancer treatment.
Acupuncture is a component of Traditional Chinese Medicine and involves the use of needles, heat, pressure, or electricity to stimulate one or more points on the body to promote the flow of internal energy. There is evidence that acupuncture can reduce symptoms such as depression, facial pain, headache, peripheral neuropathy, lower back pain, nausea and vomiting, neck pain, postoperative pain, shortness of breath, chronic fatigue, hot flashes and side effects caused by radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy. It may also assist with lifestyle changes such as smoking cessation.
Acupuncture treatments are generally safe and well tolerated by most patients, including pediatric patients and the elderly. Some conditions may require continuous treatments in order to achieve long-term effect.
Cancer patients considering acupuncture should seek certified or state-licensed practitioners who have training or experience in working with this population. Clinical trials at MSK are underway to evaluate acupuncture for chronic pain in cancer patients and for distress-related insomnia in caregivers.
- Cancer treatment-related symptoms
A number of clinical trials support the use of acupuncture in relieving pain, nausea and vomiting, dry mouth, fatigue, and hot flashes resulting from cancer treatments. It is also being evaluated to stimulate appetite, and reduce general physical wasting and unintended weight loss.
Several clinical trials showed that acupuncture is effective in alleviating pain, including joint pain associated with some cancer treatments, as well as in patients with lung or head and neck cancers.
Several studies have shown that acupressure and acupuncture can help to relieve procedural anxiety and anxiety associated with some cancer symptoms.
Acupuncture is as effective as counseling in reducing symptoms of depression, although results were mixed for major depressive disorder. It may help to relieve depression associated with some cancer symptoms.
- Nausea and vomiting
A number of studies support the use of acupuncture for this purpose, including postoperative or chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting (PONV or CINV), as well as in pediatric cancer populations.
This use is supported by scientific evidence.
Several clinical trials showed that acupuncture reduces fatigue, including fatigue associated with some cancer symptoms.
This use is supported by clinical trials.
A clinical study finds acupuncture can reduce symptoms of fibromyalgia.
A few studies have shown that acupuncture is useful in treating allergic rhinitis when used along with standard care. It may also be helpful on its own in pediatric populations.
Several randomized trials show that acupuncture may help smokers to quit.
Do Not Take If
- You have low white blood cell count, low platelet count or heart murmur (symptom of endocarditis): Acupuncture may increase risk of infection and bleeding.
- You are pregnant: Some acupuncture points can cause strong uterine contractions. Pregnant women should inform practitioners before seeking acupuncture treatment.
- You wear a pacemaker: Electrical stimulation is not advised for patients wearing electronic medical devices.
For Healthcare Professionals
Acupuncture is an integral component of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) that originated more than 2,000 years ago. Treatment involves stimulation of one or more predetermined points on the body with needles, heat (moxibustion), pressure (acupressure), or electricity (electroacupuncture, EA) for therapeutic effect.
Acupuncture is beneficial for osteoarthritis of the knee (1) (2) (3), chronic neck pain (4), Bell’s palsy (72), and fibromyalgia symptoms (5). Acupressure (6) and acupuncture (7) (8) (9) were superior to physical therapy and/or usual care in treating patients with low back pain. Acupuncture reduced high blood pressure (10) and hot flash severity (11) in postmenopausal women. It was shown to be as effective as counseling for depression symptoms (77), but had mixed results for treating major depressive disorder (12) (13). Acupuncture reduced stroke risk in patients with traumatic brain injury (78). Data from clinical trials also support its use for chronic headache (20) (21) (22), and although there was no difference between true and sham acupuncture, both treatments were more effective compared with a no-acupuncture control (23).
Electroacupuncture was found to be as helpful for stress urinary incontinence as behavioral treatments such as pelvic floor muscle training, with patients expressing similar satisfaction with results (100). Acupuncture is used to improve reproductive outcomes in women following in vitro fertilization, but clinical studies yielded conflicting results (24) (25) (26) (27) (28). It increased ovulation frequency but reduced sex steroid levels in women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) (75). In a large multicenter trial, acupuncture was not found to be helpful for PCOS infertility (101). Acupuncture did not have an analgesic effect in women undergoing induced labor (29), but reduced symptoms of chronic prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain (30), and decreased procedural anxiety in patients undergoing lithotripsy (31). In children, acupressure also appeared to reduce preprocedural anxiety (32), while EA reduced postoperative nausea and vomiting (PONV) (83). Acupuncture was also shown to benefit patients with allergic rhinitis (33) (34), including pediatric patients (47).
Acupuncture may help in smoking cessation (61), although other analytic reviews are mixed on its efficacy (84) (85). It is also a useful adjunct to standard treatment for dyspnea on exertion, a symptom associated with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) (62). Furthermore, data suggest that when added to routine care, acupuncture treatment improves the health-related quality of life in patients with allergic asthma (99).
In patients undergoing autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation, acupuncture prevented escalation of symptoms such as nausea, lack of appetite, and drowsiness, and reduced the use of pain medications (103). In breast cancer patients, acupuncture alleviated aromatase inhibitor-induced joint pain and stiffness, improving physical well-being (46) (74) and quality of life (96). EA significantly improved fatigue, anxiety, and depression as well as arthralgia compared with usual care (86) (87). Acupuncture was also as effective as standard care for hot flashes (45), and EA may be more effective than gabapentin with fewer side effects (82). EA was also shown comparable to gabapentin for improving sleep quality in women experiencing hot flashes (98). Early phase studies also suggest that acupuncture may relieve hot flashes in prostate cancer patients (64) (65) (66). Effects of acupuncture for menopausal hot flashes in non-cancer patients are mixed (95) (97). Acupuncture can improve pain and well-being in lung cancer patients (76) and benefits have also been observed for peripheral neuropathy (14), including that associated with diabetes (15), AIDS (16) (17), and chemotherapy (18) (19) (80). Acupuncture did not reduce postoperative ileus from standard surgery (40) (56), but EA did reduce postoperative ileus and analgesic use after laparoscopic surgery for colorectal cancer (73).
In palliative cancer care, acupuncture is being evaluated as an intervention to reduce cachexia and unintentional weight loss (88) (89). Its use has also been associated with increased appetite (90). Various forms of acupuncture have been found to alleviate pain (35) (36) (67), xerostomia following head and neck radiotherapy (36) (43) (44) (63) (70), fatigue (37) (71), PONV (38) (91), and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting (CINV) (39) (41) (81) (92) (93).
Acupuncture is generally safe, well tolerated (47) (48) (49) (68) (69), and cost-effective (9) (33) (34). Some conditions require continuous treatments in order to achieve long-term effect. Animal studies suggest caffeine can inhibit the pain relieving effect of acupuncture (102). Pregnant women, patients with lymphedema, those wearing pacemakers, and those with low platelet count should inform their practitioners before receiving treatment.
Cancer patients considering acupuncture should seek certified or state-licensed practitioners who have training or experience in working with cancer patients. Clinical trials at MSK are underway to evaluate acupuncture for chronic pain in cancer patients and for distress-related insomnia in caregivers.
Mechanism of Action
According to TCM, acupuncture points are thought to be located at specific areas along channels or meridians. Qi (pronounced chee, meaning energy) is believed to flow in this network of channels which connect different parts of the body and organs into a unified system. Pain and symptoms of disease are thought to arise when the flow of Qi is stagnated. Acupuncture treatments are used to promote the flow of Qi to relieve symptoms. It is also known to stimulate release of endogenous opioids.
Scientific studies have demonstrated that acupuncture can induce analgesia, but that effect was blocked by naloxone, an opioid antagonist (50) (51). Further, mice lacking opiate receptors showed low analgesic effect following electroacupuncture (EA) (52). Acupuncture also increases neuropeptide Y in animals suggesting it may help to reduce stress and depression (59) (60). Recent research shows that EA inhibits pain through different opioid receptors under varying conditions, but the mechanisms warrant further investigation (53). EA was shown to increase ovarian blood flow via ovarian sympathetic nerves in rats (54).
In women with polycystic ovary syndrome, acupuncture treatments increased ovulation frequency through the local peripheral effect on ovaries and not by stimulating the sex steroids (75). Acupuncture protects against cerebral ischemia by increasing blood flow to the ischemic brain region via neural regulation (55). The systemic antiinflammatory activities of EA are thought to be modulated by dopamine (79).
Studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have shown that acupuncture elicits changes in the brain that appear to correlate with neurological effects produced (57). Needling of LI-2, one of several acupoints used to treat xerostomia, is associated with neuroimaging changes correlated to saliva production (58). Results from a study done in patients with peripheral neuropathy indicate that acupuncture improves nerve conduction (14).
The long-term post-treatment benefits seen with EA, and to a lesser extent with sham-EA, but not with gabapentin for the treatment of hot flashes among breast cancer survivors suggest that both types of acupuncture produce underlying physiologic changes not induced by pharmacologic intervention (82). That sham-EA demonstrated greater placebo effects with reduced nocebo effects than pill-placebo (82) also may explain why some acupuncture trials find similar efficacy between active and sham interventions. Other data indicate that a higher baseline expectancy of response predicts treatment response with sham-EA but not EA, suggesting there are divergent mechanisms and that patients who have a low expectancy may do better with EA than sham-EA (94).
- Neutropenia, thrombocytopenia, or history of endocarditis
Acupuncture may increase risk of infection and bleeding. Use with caution.
Pregnant women should inform practitioners before seeking acupuncture treatment.
Electrical stimulation is contraindicated for patients wearing electronic medical devices.