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Home > Health Library > Acupuncture (PDQ®): Integrative, alternative, and complementary therapies - Patient Information [NCI]
This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.
Acupuncture applies needles, heat, pressure, and other treatments to places on the skin, called acupuncture points (or acupoints), to control symptoms such as pain or nausea and vomiting. Acupuncture is part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). TCM uses acupuncture, diet, herbal therapy, meditation, exercise, and massage to restore health.
Acupuncture is based on the belief that qi (vital energy) flows through the body along paths, called meridians. Qi is said to affect a person's spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical condition.
Most acupuncture methods use needles. Disposable, stainless steel needles that are slightly thicker than a human hair are inserted into the skin at acupoints. The acupuncture practitioner chooses the correct acupoints for the problem being treated. The inserted needles may be twirled, moved up and down at different speeds and depths, heated, or charged with a weak electric current.
Acupuncture methods include the following:
Patients may have a needling feeling during acupuncture, known as de qi sensation, making them feel heaviness, numbness, or tingling.
In laboratory studies, tumor samples are used to test a new treatment and find out if it is likely to have any anticancer effects. In animal studies, tests are done to see if a drug, procedure, or treatment is safe and effective in animals. Laboratory and animal studies are done before a treatment is tested in people.
Laboratory and animal studies have tested the effects of acupuncture. See the Laboratory/Animal/Preclinical Studies section of the health professional version of Acupuncture for information on laboratory and animal studies.
In 1997, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) began looking at how well acupuncture worked as a complementary therapy for cancer -related symptoms and side effects of cancer treatments. Studies of acupuncture in cancer care also have been done in China and other countries.
The strongest evidence for acupuncture has come from clinical trials on the use of acupuncture to relieve nausea and vomiting.
Acupuncture has been studied to help relieve pain in cancer patients. The results are mixed due to small sample sizes and design problems.
Most clinical trials of acupuncture for cancer pain use conventional acupuncture methods with needles in different parts of the body.
In one review, acupuncture reduced cancer pain in some patients with various cancers, although the studies were small. Another review concluded acupuncture with pain medicine worked better than the pain medicine alone. This review was limited by poor quality of clinical trials.
A 2020 clinical trial to treat cancer pain showed that the combination of wrist-ankle acupuncture and auricular acupuncture was effective in reducing pain and use of pain medication. The study was limited by small size, lack of a placebo group, and short follow-up.
In several randomized clinical trials on pain after surgery, acupuncture reduced the pain, but sample sizes were small and additional treatments were unknown. Some studies reported that when acupuncture was used with standard care, pain relief was better.
In two randomized clinical trials in patients having a bone marrow aspiration and biopsy, acupressure was found to relieve pain and anxiety compared to sham acupressure.
Aromatase inhibitors, a type of hormone therapy for postmenopausal women who have hormone-dependent breast cancer, may cause muscle and joint pain.
Peripheral neuropathy is a common side effect of chemotherapy that can cause pain, paresthesia, sensory loss, and muscle weakness. These symptoms can cause a patient to delay or end treatment. Chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN) can affect quality of life and may last long after chemotherapy has ended.
The current standard of care for CIPN is symptom management such as narcotics and antidepressants. However, treatment may not relieve all of the pain, and cause dizziness, sedation, dry mouth, and constipation.
Some randomized clinical trials of acupuncture have shown promise in treating CIPN. More evidence is needed to explore how acupuncture may relieve symptoms of CIPN and to find out which patients may benefit most from acupuncture. See the Acupuncture to treat persistent CIPN from taxane or platinum-based chemotherapy section of the health professional version of Acupuncture for more information about these studies.
Hormone therapy may cause hot flashes in women with breast cancer and men with prostate cancer. Studies of the use of acupuncture to relieve hot flashes have shown mixed results.
Fatigue is a common symptom in patients with cancer and a frequent side effect of chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Several clinical trials have studied the effect of acupuncture in the treatment and prevention of xerostomia (dry mouth) caused by radiation therapy in patients with nasopharyngeal carcinoma and head and neck cancer.
One phase III clinical trial with sites in the United States and China studied 339 patients with head and neck cancer who received true acupuncture, sham acupuncture, or standard care while receiving radiation therapy. Acupuncture was given three times per week during a 6- to 7-week course of radiation therapy. The dry mouth score reduction at 1 year was greater in the true acupuncture group than in the standard care group, but only slightly different from the sham acupuncture group. An additional phase III clinical trial is in progress to study the role of acupuncture for the treatment of dry mouth in head and neck cancer patients.
Other trials are ongoing.
There have been a number of case reports and studies that show acupuncture is safe and may decrease swelling and relieve symptoms in patients with lymphedema in the arms and legs.
After cancer surgery, some patients develop ileus. Randomized clinical trials that studied acupuncture for ileus had mixed results.
Studies have shown that acupuncture may help relieve sleep problems.
Studies that suggest acupuncture may improve the immune system are limited.
Other clinical trials in cancer patients have studied the effects of acupuncture on cancer symptoms and side effects caused by cancer treatment, including weight loss, cough, coughing up blood, fever, anxiety, depression, proctitis, speech problems, blocked esophagus, chemotherapy-related cognitive problems, and hiccups. Studies have shown that treatment with acupuncture either relieves symptoms or keeps them from getting worse.
There have been few complications reported. Problems are caused by using needles that are not sterile and from placing the needle in the wrong place, movement of the patient, or a defect in the needle.
Problems include the following:
A strict clean needle method must be used when acupuncture treatment is given to cancer patients, because chemotherapy and radiation therapy weaken the body's immune system.
The FDA approved acupuncture needles for use by licensed practitioners in 1996. The FDA requires that sterile needles be used and labeled for single use by qualified practitioners only.
More than 40 states and the District of Columbia have laws about acupuncture practice. The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (www.nccaom.org) certifies practitioners of acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Most states require this certification.
Use our clinical trial search to find NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are accepting patients. You can search for trials based on the type of cancer, the age of the patient, and where the trials are being done. General information about clinical trials is also available.
Physician Data Query (PDQ) is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries come in two versions. The health professional versions have detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions have cancer information that is accurate and up to date and most versions are also available in Spanish.
PDQ is a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH is the federal government's center of biomedical research. The PDQ summaries are based on an independent review of the medical literature. They are not policy statements of the NCI or the NIH.
Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about the use of acupuncture in the treatment of people with cancer. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.
Reviewers and Updates
Editorial Boards write the PDQ cancer information summaries and keep them up to date. These Boards are made up of experts in cancer treatment and other specialties related to cancer. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made when there is new information. The date on each summary ("Updated") is the date of the most recent change.
The information in this patient summary was taken from the health professional version, which is reviewed regularly and updated as needed, by the PDQ Integrative, Alternative, and Complementary Therapies Editorial Board.
Clinical Trial Information
A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Clinical trials can be found online at NCI's website. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service (CIS), NCI's contact center, at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
Permission to Use This Summary
PDQ is a registered trademark. The content of PDQ documents can be used freely as text. It cannot be identified as an NCI PDQ cancer information summary unless the whole summary is shown and it is updated regularly. However, a user would be allowed to write a sentence such as "NCI's PDQ cancer information summary about breast cancer prevention states the risks in the following way: [include excerpt from the summary]."
The best way to cite this PDQ summary is:
PDQ® Integrative, Alternative, and Complementary Therapies Editorial Board. PDQ Acupuncture. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam/patient/acupuncture-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389264]
Images in this summary are used with permission of the author(s), artist, and/or publisher for use in the PDQ summaries only. If you want to use an image from a PDQ summary and you are not using the whole summary, you must get permission from the owner. It cannot be given by the National Cancer Institute. Information about using the images in this summary, along with many other images related to cancer can be found in Visuals Online. Visuals Online is a collection of more than 3,000 scientific images.
The information in these summaries should not be used to make decisions about insurance reimbursement. More information on insurance coverage is available on Cancer.gov on the Managing Cancer Care page.
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Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)—also called integrative medicine—includes a broad range of healing philosophies, approaches, and therapies. A therapy is generally called complementary when it is used in addition to conventional treatments; it is often called alternative when it is used instead of conventional treatment. (Conventional treatments are those that are widely accepted and practiced by the mainstream medical community.) Depending on how they are used, some therapies can be considered either complementary or alternative. Complementary and alternative therapies are used in an effort to prevent illness, reduce stress, prevent or reduce side effects and symptoms, or control or cure disease.
Unlike conventional treatments for cancer, complementary and alternative therapies are often not covered by insurance companies. Patients should check with their insurance provider to find out about coverage for complementary and alternative therapies.
Cancer patients considering complementary and alternative therapies should discuss this decision with their doctor, nurse, or pharmacist as they would any type of treatment. Some complementary and alternative therapies may affect their standard treatment or may be harmful when used with conventional treatment.
It is important that the same scientific methods used to test conventional therapies are used to test CAM therapies. The National Cancer Institute and the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) are sponsoring a number of clinical trials (research studies) at medical centers to test CAM therapies for use in cancer.
Conventional approaches to cancer treatment have generally been studied for safety and effectiveness through a scientific process that includes clinical trials with large numbers of patients. Less is known about the safety and effectiveness of complementary and alternative methods. Few CAM therapies have been tested using demanding scientific methods. A small number of CAM therapies that were thought to be purely alternative approaches are now being used in cancer treatment—not as cures, but as complementary therapies that may help patients feel better and recover faster. One example is acupuncture. According to a panel of experts at a National Institutes of Health (NIH) meeting in November 1997, acupuncture has been found to help control nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy and pain related to surgery. However, some approaches, such as the use of laetrile, have been studied and found not to work and to possibly cause harm.
The NCI Best Case Series Program which was started in 1991, is one way CAM approaches that are being used in practice are being studied. The program is overseen by the NCI's Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine (OCCAM). Health care professionals who offer alternative cancer therapies submit their patients' medical records and related materials to OCCAM. OCCAM carefully reviews these materials to see if any seem worth further research.
When considering complementary and alternative therapies, patients should ask their health care provider the following questions:
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH)
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) facilitates research and evaluation of complementary and alternative practices, and provides information about a variety of approaches to health professionals and the public.
CAM on PubMed
NCCIH and the NIH National Library of Medicine (NLM) jointly developed CAM on PubMed, a free and easy-to-use search tool for finding CAM-related journal citations. As a subset of the NLM's PubMed bibliographic database, CAM on PubMed features more than 230,000 references and abstracts for CAM-related articles from scientific journals. This database also provides links to the websites of over 1,800 journals, allowing users to view full-text articles. (A subscription or other fee may be required to access full-text articles.)
Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine
The NCI Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine (OCCAM) coordinates the activities of the NCI in the area of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). OCCAM supports CAM cancer research and provides information about cancer-related CAM to health providers and the general public via the NCI website.
National Cancer Institute (NCI) Cancer Information Service
U.S. residents may call the Cancer Information Service (CIS), NCI's contact center, toll free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) Monday through Friday from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm. A trained Cancer Information Specialist is available to answer your questions.
Food and Drug Administration
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates drugs and medical devices to ensure that they are safe and effective.
Federal Trade Commission
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enforces consumer protection laws. Publications available from the FTC include:
Last Revised: 2020-11-12
If you want to know more about cancer and how it is treated, or if you wish to know about clinical trials for your type of cancer, you can call the NCI's Cancer Information Service at 1-800-422-6237, toll free. A trained information specialist can talk with you and answer your questions.
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