One of the oldest healing practices in the world, acupuncture is beginning to have a role in alleviating pain and discomfort associated with cancer and its treatments. Acupuncturists use fine needles to penetrate the skin and stimulate – manually or electrically – specific points on the body.
Stimulation at these points, according to traditional Chinese medicine, corrects imbalance in the flow of qi – a type of energy that flows through channels known as meridians.
Dana-Farber staff acupuncturist Weidong Lu, MB, MPH, PhD, of the Leonard P. Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies, has been using the technique with cancer patients and survivors for a dozen years in the Zakim Center. He and David S. Rosenthal, MD, the medical director of the Zakim Center, recently reviewed the research on the effectiveness of acupuncture in cancer care, and published their findings in Current Pain and Headache Reports.
While many studies have been inconclusive, Lu and Rosenthal noted that that acupuncture appears to be beneficial:
- To reduce post-operative nausea and vomiting, and to lessen the need for opioid painkillers (such as morphine) following cancer surgery,
- To relieve constipation and itching that are common side effects of morphine and other opioid drugs,
- To treat pain and loss of nerve sensation (neuropathies) resulting from chemotherapy,
- For relief of joint pain in women taking aromatase inhibitors for breast cancer,
- To help relieve chronic pain from neck surgery and radiation for cancer.
Lu, who is one of five acupuncturists in the Zakim Center and at DFCI’s South Shore satellite trained in the new subspecialty of oncology acupuncture, says, “It’s critical for practitioners in this emerging specialty to have the skills in how to place the needles, and the oncology skills to assess the risks of patients with cancer. For example, you need to monitor lab results and imaging data – you don’t want to put a needle into a tumor.”
If someone with cancer is interested in trying acupuncture, he or she needs to be proactive in choosing a practitioner, Lu says. “You should bring your own lab tests and medical records and MRI reports. You should ask if they have often treated cancer patients – if they don’t know what you’re talking about, you probably don’t want to go to them.”