Acupuncture and Acupressure
Also known by these names
Nancy Hepp, MS, BCCT Project Manager
Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS, BCCT Senior Researcher
Last updated September 10, 2021.
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese therapy that has generally become widely accepted in Western medicine. Acupuncture is based on the regulation of energy pathways and circulation through stimulation of specific points on the body surface, as evidenced by neurophysiological investigations, and has been shown effective and safe in a variety of conditions and treatment-related side effects.1
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.2
Treatment involves stimulation of one or more designated points on the body with needles (acupuncture), pressure (acupressure), or electricity (electroacupuncture, EA).
Clinical Practice Guidelines
The 2016 American Society of Clinical Oncology clinical practice guideline for management of chronic pain in survivors of adult cancers concluded that benefits of acupuncture outweigh harms, although evidence quality is low. The guidelines give a weak recommendation for acupuncture to manage chronic pain.3
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].”4
2013 clinical practice guidelines from the American College of Chest Physicians recommended acupuncture or related techniques as an adjunct treatment option for lung cancer patients with these conditions:7
- Nausea and vomiting from either chemotherapy or radiation therapy
- Cancer-related pain and peripheral neuropathy with inadequate control of symptoms
Treating the Cancer
Working against cancer growth or spread, improving survival, or working with other treatments or therapies to improve their anticancer action
Lab and Animal Evidence
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
Anxiety, Depression or Distress
Dry Mouth (Xerostomia)
Ileus and Bowel Function
Nausea and Vomiting
Quality of Life and Physical Function
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.
Optimizing Your Terrain
Creating an environment within your body that does not support cancer development, growth or spread
Lower markers of coagulation among women with polycystic ovary syndrome after and for 16 weeks following 14 treatments of low-frequency electroacupuncture, but not more than with exercise in a small RCTStener-Victorin E, Baghaei F et al. Effects of acupuncture and exercise on insulin sensitivity, adipose tissue characteristics, and markers of coagulation and fibrinolysis in women with polycystic ovary syndrome: secondary analyses of a randomized controlled trial. Fertility and Sterility. 2012 Feb;97(2):501-8.
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.
Acupuncture is generally safe, well tolerated, and cost-effective. However, some adverse effects are experienced by up to 10 percent of patients, although some studies report a much lower number.75 and others a higher number.76 Effects may include these:
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:77
- Lymphedema (in the affected limb)
- Pacemaker use
- Low platelet count or other severe clotting disorder
- An unstable spine
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.”78
Integrative Programs, Protocols and Medical Systems
For more information about programs and protocols see our Integrative Programs and Protocols page.
- Programs and protocols
- Alschuler & Gazella complementary approaches:79
- Block program80
- Chang strategies:81
- Improving quality of life
- Part of a treatment “cocktail” with other therapies
- MacDonald breast cancer program82
- McKinney protocols:83
- Traditional systems
Non-cancer Uses of Acupuncture or Acupressure
BCCT has not reviewed the effectiveness of this therapy for non-cancer uses.
This summary draws from the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s About Herbs, National Cancer Institute’s Acupuncture (PDQ®), The Centre for Health Innovation's Evidence-Based Monographs: Acupuncture, CAM-Cancer’s The Summaries, and other sources as noted.