Acupuncture to treat nausea and vomiting because of cancer treatments


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Acupuncture can be an extremely effective method of managing the symptoms of cancer. Many cancer patients also have to contend with serious side effects stemming from the use of anti-cancer chemotherapeutic agents, and these can also be resolved through complementary therapies like cancer.

One of the most well-known and least pleasant of all the side effects stemming from the use of chemotherapies (pharmaceutical cancer treatments) is nausea and sickness. This side effect is so strong that many people forgo the life-saving treatment because of how unpleasant recovery from chemotherapy can be.

Why do cancer therapies cause nausea and vomiting?

Cancer is a uniquely complex condition that has proven extremely difficult to treat effectively. Because of these complexities, some of the only successful therapies available for the treatment of many cancers are potent chemotherapeutic agents with severe side effects.

One of the main problems is that cancer cells are not foreign invaders, they are your body’s own cells that have undergone changes in their behaviour and function that results in uncontrollable growth and the development of tumours. Differentiating between cancer cells and any surrounding healthy cells has proven extremely difficult, which is why chemotherapies are fairly non-specific.

The majority of chemotherapies are highly cytotoxic (poisonous to living cells) drugs that can (and do) damage healthy cells as well as the cancer. Many chemotherapies don’t discriminate between cell types at all, but because of their mechanism of action prove to be more toxic to cancer cells. This is because many chemotherapies act by stopping a cell during its division process, and cancer cells divide far more often than regular cells. By timing the dosing of chemotherapies, doctors can use the treatment in such a way that it proves far more detrimental to the cancer than the rest of the body’s healthy cells.

Unfortunately this mechanism of targeting cells that divide more often has some drawbacks, the main one being that there are cells in certain parts of the body which also have a high division rate, and these suffer during chemotherapy. These include cells of the bone marrow and those of the small intestine, and it is damage to the latter group that is responsible for the nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy.

Managing nausea and vomiting is an important part of treating cancer as a whole because of its severity and how badly it can affect a cancer patient’s quality of life. A number of medications called anti-emetics (anti-sickness drugs) are usually used, but their effectiveness can vary, which makes alternative approaches to dealing with nausea invaluable. Acupuncture is one such approach, and in the following section we look at how it can be used to deal with the nausea associated with cancer therapies.

Acupuncture and the nausea and sickness of cancer treatments

Acupuncture, the ancient Chinese art which largely involves the application of needles to specified acupoints with the purpose of stimulating healing, has proven effective in a number of applications. It has now been established that these techniques can be used to effectively treat post-surgical nausea, and in many causes it has similar successes in treating the nausea that follows chemotherapy.

In trials assessing acupuncture, electroacupuncture (performed using electrical stimulation), and acupressure (acupuncture where pressure applied with digits and elbows is used rather than needles) some techniques were found more successful than others.

Electroacupuncture was found to be more effective than conventional acupuncture in many studies, and acupressure was found to be effective initially, but with limited success over time. Other studies have shown that conventional acupuncture can be effective when applied in conjunction with anti-emetic medication.

More research needs to be performed on the effectiveness of acupuncture in dealing with the consequences of chemotherapy, but for the moment the technique can be a valuable alternative for patients really struggling with nausea and vomiting because of chemotherapy.

Acupuncture should not be pursued as a cancer treatment, it is a complementary therapy that is useful when used in conjunction with medical care. You should always make sure that your doctor is aware of any treatment you are receiving outside of your standard care.


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