Acupuncture and Acupressure

Also known by these names

  • Acustimulation
  • Electroacupuncture
  • Manual acupuncture

Key Points

  • Acupuncture is a component of traditional Chinese medicine that is widely practiced in Western medicine.
  • Acupuncture and acupressure treatments stimulate designated points on the body with fine needles, pressure, or electricity.
  • BCCT’s interest in these therapies is in their success in treating symptoms related to cancer and treatments, especially pain, nausea and vomiting.
  • Acupuncture is recommended by the Society for Integrative Medicine and the American College of Chest Physicians for symptom management.
  • Acupuncture is generally safe, well tolerated and cost-effective. A few side effects are noted, and some medical conditions may make acupuncture inappropriate.
  • Acupuncture is widely available, and many conventional physicians refer patients for acupuncture therapy.

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese therapy that has generally become widely accepted in Western medicine. The World Health Organization published an extensive review of evidence in 2002 concluding that acupuncture is an effective treatment for many diseases, symptoms or conditions, including pain and other cancer symptoms.1

Treatment involves stimulation of one or more designated points on the body with needles (acupuncture), pressure (acupressure), or electricity (electroacupuncture, EA).

Clinical Practice Guidelines

In the 2009 Society for Integrative Oncology clinical practice guidelines, “acupuncture is strongly recommended as a complementary therapy when pain is poorly controlled, when side effects from other modalities are clinically significant, when chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting (CINV) are poorly controlled, or when reducing the amount of pain medicine becomes a clinical goal. Acupuncture may also have a role in reducing xerostomia [dry mouth].”2

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Managing Side Effects and Promoting Wellness

Managing or relieving side effects or symptoms, reducing treatment toxicity, supporting quality of life or promoting general well-being

Research has found that these treatments have been successfully used with cancer patients to reduce these symptoms:

  • Joint pain and stiffness (including aromatase inhibitor-induced arthralgia)
  • Other pain
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Hot flashes (and improving sleep quality relating to hot flashes)
  • Peripheral neuropathy due to chemotherapy
  • Post-operative nausea and vomiting
  • Chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting
  • Postoperative ileus (obstruction of the ileum or other part of the intestine) and analgesic use after laparoscopic surgery for colorectal cancer
  • Dry mouth following head and neck radiotherapy
  • Insomnia67

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Reducing Risk

Reducing the risk of developing cancer or the risk of recurrence

An important function of many integrative cancer therapy protocols is to alter the tumor microenvironment so that it is inhospitable to the development, growth and spread of cancer. Chronic inflammation, such as occurs when a wound doesn’t heal, can lead to fibrosis, which can then contribute to cancer growth. 

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Access

Acupuncture has become widely but not universally available in hospitals and independent small practices. Conventional physicians and nurse practitioners often refer patients for acupuncture treatments. If your healthcare team cannot refer you to or recommend an acupuncturist, an internet search may locate one nearby. BCCT encourages you to check licensing and certification of acupuncturists before scheduling.

Cautions

Acupuncture is generally safe, well tolerated, and cost-effective. However, some adverse effects are experienced by up to 10 percent of patients. Effects may include these:

Expand list

Patients are advised to find fully qualified, licensed and certified acupuncturists. Many conventional physicians make referrals to such acupuncturists.

Patients with any of these conditions may be advised not to engage in treatments:

  • Pregnancy
  • Lymphedema (in the affected limb)
  • Pacemaker use
  • Low platelet count

According to the Society for Integrative Oncology clinical practice guidelines for integrative therapies in breast cancer care, “electroacupuncture should not be used in patients with a pacemaker or implantable defibrillators and that special attention is required when treating patients who are pregnant, have seizure disorders, or are disoriented.”13

Integrative Plans, Protocols and Medical Systems

For more information about plans and rotocols, see our Integrative Plans and Protocols page.

  • Plans, protocols and programs
    • Abrams & Weil integrative medicine approaches:14  
      • Breast cancer
      • Lung cancer
      • Fatigue
      • Hot flashes
      • Nausea and vomiting
    • Alschuler & Gazella complementary approaches:15
      • Side effect and symptom management including pain
    • Block program:16
      • Nausea and vomiting
      • Smoking cessation
      • Some respiratory difficulties
    • Chang strategies:17
      • Improving quality of life
      • Part of a treatment “cocktail” with other therapies
    • McKinney protocols:18
      • Breast cancer
      • Constipation
      • Diarrhea
      • Dysphagia (difficulty swallowing)
      • Hot flashes
      • Leukemia
      • Neuropathy
  • Traditional systems

Non-cancer Uses of Acupuncture or Acupressure

BCCT has not reviewed the effectiveness of this therapy for non-cancer uses.

Acupuncture

  • Osteoarthritis of the knee
  • Chronic neck pain
  • Chronic headache
  • Fibromyalgia symptoms
  • Low back pain
  • Bell’s palsy
  • High blood pressure
  • Hot flash severity in postmenopausal women
  • Depression symptoms
  • Reducing stroke risk in patients with traumatic brain injury
  • Allergic rhinitis
  • Allergic asthma
  • Smoking cessation
  • Adjunct to standard treatment for dyspnea on exertion
  • Autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation for autoimmune disorders and other non-cancer diseases and disorders
  • Peripheral neuropathy due to diabetes, AIDS and other non-cancer conditions

Electroacupuncture

  • Stress urinary incontinence
  • Improving reproductive outcomes in women following in vitro fertilization
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • Chronic prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain
  • Procedural anxiety in patients undergoing lithotripsy
  • Reducing postoperative nausea and vomiting

Acupressure

  • Preprocedural anxiety in children

Written by Nancy Hepp, MS, with review by Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS; most recent update on January 28, 2019. Note: BCCT has not conducted an independent review of research of acupuncture and acupressure. This summary draws from the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s About Herbs, National Cancer Institute’s Acupuncture (PDQ®), CAM-Cancer’s The Summaries, and other sources as noted.

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