Cancer and the therapies used to treat it can cause a host of side effects like fatigue, “chemo brain” and dry mouth which can last for years after treatment ends—some may be permanent. Increasingly patients and caregivers are turning to alternative therapies like acupuncture as a growing number of studies indicate that they may provide some relief.
Acupuncture for Fatigue
A recent UK study found that breast cancer survivors who had been experiencing fatigue, anxiety, and depression for a year or more following treatment felt better after six weekly acupuncture sessions compared to a group of women who didn’t get the sessions.
All participants were also given a booklet about cancer-related fatigue at the start of the study.
The researchers used a questionnaire and scoring system to rate the effectiveness of their treatment. Women receiving acupuncture improved in several key areas:
- General fatigue dropped by almost four points on a 0-20 scale compared to a decline of less than one point in the comparison group.
- Anxiety and depression dropped by two additional points post-acupuncture, compared to scores in women who received educational materials only.
- On scores of overall emotional and physical well-being, women got a greater boost with acupuncture therapy as well.
While the researchers haven’t determined what produced the benefits—the needles themselves or a “placebo effect,” they say their research proves that acupuncture is an effective therapy for managing chemo-related fatigue and improving patients’ quality of life.
Dry Mouth Relief
Another recent study found that acupuncture may provide relief for people who have chronic dry mouth as a result of treatment for head and neck cancers.
The study involved 144 patients from several cancer centers in the UK who had chronic dry mouth following radiation therapy. For all participants, it had been at least 18 months since their last treatment.
The participants were assigned one of two treatment groups: one group received two hour-long educational sessions on oral care and the other received eight weekly 20-minute sessions of group acupuncture targeting traditional points in the head and fingers believed to influence the salivary glands. After the first round of treatment the patients switched groups
At the end the course of acupuncture sessions, participants were between 1.65 and 2.08 times more likely to report improvements in five of six dry mouth symptoms than with learning about oral care alone. For patients with severe dry mouth only about one-quarter reported an improvement.
Despite only modest improvements, the researchers and other experts say that acupuncture is still a viable option for chronic dry mouth considering that:
- There is only one prescription drug used to treat dry mouth and it comes with its own side effects.
- Other therapies such as special toothpastes or mouth rinses don’t provide relief for everyone.
- When given in a group setting such as those provided at cancer centers, the cost is relatively low.
- Acupuncture is non-invasive and when delivered by a qualified practitioner, acupuncture is very safe.
So, if you suffer from dry mouth, acupuncture may be worth a try. As one radiation oncologist said, “If you don’t achieve a benefit, there’s no harm done outside the cost.”
Journal of Clinical Oncology