Studies Reveal that Acupuncture May Reduce Chemotherapy Side Effects

Acupuncture, which dates as far back as the first millennium B.C., has been championed by practitioners, doctors, and patients as an effective vehicle for achieving balanced health. Acupuncture uses thin needles that are inserted just under the skin and left in place for about a half-hour.

According to Chinese medicine theory, acupuncture helps restore balance and a healthy energy flow within the body. Although scientists don’t fully understand how or why acupuncture works, some studies indicate that it may provide a number of medical benefits including the reduction of chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.

Chemotherapy is a treatment for cancers that involves administering chemicals into the body that are found toxic to malignant cells. Chemotherapy, often successful in treating malignant cancer cells, often produces intense side effects in the body. According to a review published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, certain types of acupuncture-point stimulation may relieve chemotherapy-induced nausea or vomiting. Despite significant progress over the past decade in controlling chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, more than half of all patients receiving chemotherapy still suffer from these side effects. Furthermore, nausea may persist when vomiting is controlled. These symptoms can be severely debilitating and often lead patients to refuse further courses of chemotherapy. Refusing chemotherapy can minimize the chance for optimal health outcome.

The acupuncture point thought to be associated with relief of nausea is P6, which is located on the wrist. This point can be stimulated through a variety of methods, including manual acupuncture (insertion of needles), electro-acupuncture (passing electric current through the inserted needle), noninvasive electro-stimulation (application of electric current without a needle), or acupressure (pressure applied by the fingers or an elastic wristband). Patients receiving high-dose chemotherapy found that electro-acupuncture treatments combined with anti-nausea medication were more effective than medication alone in controlling their chemo-related vomiting, according to a study reported in the Dec. 6 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association. According to cancer experts, the study adds to the evidence that non-traditional therapies can be helpful to patients suffering from side effects of chemotherapy. An increasing number of well-designed studies are focusing on complementary and alternative therapies.

Additional support for acupuncture to assist in alleviating the side effects of chemotherapy was offered at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, in December of 2000.

One hundred and four women who were undergoing high-dose chemotherapy prior to having bone marrow transplants received anti-nausea drugs. In addition, each woman received either electro-acupuncture once a day for five days, “minimal needling” with no electrical stimulation once a day for five days, or no additional therapy. The women who received electro-acupuncture experienced significantly less nausea and vomiting than the women who didn’t receive any needling, or who had only acupuncture. The women who received acupuncture without electrical stimulation also had less nausea and vomiting than the women who received no acupuncture.

The San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium offered the following ‘take home message’: Acupuncture may help curb nausea, one of the most feared and debilitating side effects of high-dose chemotherapy. It may provide additional relief of nausea beyond what medication alone can achieve.

David Rosenthal, MD, Chair of the American Cancer Society’s (ACS) national advisory committee on complementary and alternative medicine, agrees that more research is merited. “The effects of this treatment might vary between different chemotherapy patient populations,” he says. “You would also like to know if the benefit is enough, not only in efficacy but in efficiency.” “Still,” he says, “Patients are finding that acupuncture can sometimes be effective in dealing with pain, nausea, and treatment of mucositis (ulcerations in the mouth).” Acupuncture treatment is being provided at many cancer centers, including the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, where Rosenthal is in charge of integrative therapies. “We began offering acupuncture a month ago and the appointments are already filled.” Rosenthal says.