Acupuncture & pain control for cancer patients


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Cancer is a complex condition that can affect virtually any part of the body. The disease involves fundamental changes in how cells behave in terms of how they grow and divide, and these changes ultimately result in an uncontrolled growth of cells that has detrimental effects on the health of a person as a whole. Cancer is a progressive illness that takes its toll on both the sufferer and his or her family, existing treatments for the disease are known to cause severe side effects.

One of the major symptoms of both cancer and its treatment is pain, and in this article we look at the pain management of cancer and cancer therapies, focussing more specifically on how the ancient art of acupuncture can be used to manage it.

Pain in cancer

Cancerous growths can become large enough to severely affect the function of tissues and organs. In these instances, the symptoms a sufferer may experience can be extremely painful. Cancers of the lung for example, are well known for causing progressively more painful coughs, as well as difficulty in breathing. Cancers of the brain are associated with severe headaches and other neurological symptoms, and various other cancers can all cause pain problems when they progress past a certain point.

Cancer therapies are also known for causing unpleasant side effects. This is because the nature of many cancers demands aggressive therapeutic options that can be damaging to other parts of the body. Surgical interventions are an invasive option used where necessary to remove tumours, and post-operative recovery usually involves a certain amount of pain which needs to be managed as a patient recovers.

Chemotherapy, the chemical treatment of cancers, is also known to cause pain as one of its many side effects. Chemotherapeutic agents belong to a class of medicines known as ‘cytotoxic drugs’, and these can cause extensive damage to non-cancerous cells whilst also treating the cancer. Examples of these drugs include cisplatin, carboplatin, and oxaliplatin.

Chemotherapeutic drugs often kill off cells in the lining of the intestine causing severe abdominal pain and nausea. Similarly, these drugs can also damage nerve endings, causing a condition called neuropathy and contributing to a chronic pain problem. Unfortunately these extremely potent agents are the only effective pharmaceutical tool against many cancers, and are still used extensively despite their damaging and painful side effects.

Considering the fact that pain is such a major part of cancer, it is unsurprising that its management is a major part of cancer management. Traditionally there are a number of steps that can be taken that involve providing analgesic (painkillers) medication. In some cases a patient may benefit from other pain management like physiotherapy, but in most cases the focus would be on painkillers for pain relief.

The painkillers use will depend on the severity of the pain and how well a person responds to pain relieving treatment. Doctors usually prescribe weaker painkillers and work up to more serious ones like morphine if first line treatments don’t effectively remedy the pain problem.

In some cases the many different medications a patient is using can mean that certain pain medication isn’t suitable for them. This is because too many different chemicals in the body can sometimes do more harm than good, interfering with one another or interacting in odd ways. In these cases alternative therapies are sought, including the infamous use of cannabis.

How is acupuncture used for pain control in cancer patients?

A number of different acupunctural techniques have been assessed for their usefulness in treating pain. These include electroacupuncture (a technique involving electrical stimulation at pre-defined acupoints), auricular acupuncture (acupuncture of the ear), moxibustion (burning of the herb moxa), acupressure (the application of pressure to particular acupoints, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) on the aforementioned acupoints.

In recent research into these techniques it has been shown that post-surgical pain in particular fares well under acupunctural treatment, particularly when administered alongside analgesic medication. In many cases the use of such treatments prevented the need for stronger painkilling medication, however further research is still needed to reach more solid conclusions on the usefulness of acupuncture in treating pain.

These treatments also showed some added benefits which are extremely relevant to cancer patients. Acupunctural techniques like these showed promise in dealing with the nausea and sickness following surgery, and both of these symptoms are a common but unpleasant side effect of chemotherapy.

The evidence to date, while not conclusive, does suggest that acupuncture can have a useful and pivotal role in dealing with the many symptoms of cancer and side effects of cancer treatment.

Acupuncture is now a provision of many different hospitals and hospices that deal with cancer, although in most cases a patient will need to pay for the service. It is important to seek the services of a properly qualified acupuncturist, as poor training is thought to be the major cause of acupuncture related injuries and infections. Some acupuncturists register with professional bodies like The British Acupuncture Council, and these organisations ensure that only the highest standard of care is delivered by their members. Looking for acupuncturists with memberships to such organisations is a good way of determining their expertise.


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