Acupuncture to treat fatigue in cancer patients


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Cancer is a disease that take its toll on the body and mind, particularly in later stages of the disease and when aggressive treatments are used. The disease itself is caused by the abnormal growth of cells which ultimately results in malignant tumours that damage the body. Many treatment options used cause severe side effects because it is difficult to discriminate between cancer cells and healthy tissues, and as such cancer patients have to not only contend with the disease itself but the necessary unpleasantness of treatment.

One of the many difficulties many cancer patients face is fatigue or chronic tiredness, many cancer patients struggle with fatigue and its management, and in this article we take a look at how acupuncture can be used to manage this condition.

What is cancer-relate fatigue?

Fatigue is medical term for tiredness or exhaustion caused from either exertion or illness. Because cancer is often a protracted condition lasting months and years, fatigue becomes a major problem for sufferers who must contend with it on a daily basis.

There are many causes of cancer-related fatigue, but at present we still don’t fully understand its mechanisms or why it affects so many people. Typically speaking this fatigue is more common in elderly patients, those with cancers in a particularly advanced or progressed state (e.g. cancers that have metastasised to other parts of the body), or people receiving a combination of different therapies.  Other cancer patients do suffer from fatigue as well, but those falling into these categories are more vulnerable to it.

Fatigue is often one of the first signs of cancer, and certain types of cancer are more likely to cause tiredness than others. It is thought that blood cancers (leukaemias) that affect the bone marrow cause tiredness by reducing the number of red blood cells there are in circulation, thereby causing anaemia and tiredness. Advanced cancers are thought to cause fatigue because there are more tumours in the body affecting its workings and hijacking nutrients.

Cancer fatigue is often complicated by other medical problems, particularly diabetes, obesity, breathing difficulties, heart issues, and depression, all conditions known to have a component of fatigue involved. Cancer and its treatment can exacerbate existing fatigue. Cancer is closely related to depression, a mental illness that can affect people who are struggling with a difficult disease.

As mentioned briefly previously in this article, cancer treatments are often quite aggressive, and one of the consequences of that can be fatigue alongside or caused by many other side effects.

Surgery is often employed to remove tumours, and post-operative tiredness is fairly commonplace. This fatigue can last for anywhere between weeks and months, depending on the extent of the surgery and how advanced the cancer is.

Radiotherapy is the targeted use of certain kinds of radiation to kill off cancer cells, and this method can also exact a toll on the body. Radiotherapy can damage bone marrow and cause anaemia, another contributory factor that can result in further fatigue.

Chemotherapy is the use of pharmaceutical agents to combat cancer, and while many people don’t experience fatigue after the therapy, others can as a result of a drop in the number of red blood cells that can be caused by chemotherapies. This will, again, lead to anaemia and the associate fatigue. Chemo is also known to cause severe nausea and vomiting, and this can often result in a person eating less than they need to. The lack of energy from food undoubtedly contributes to tiredness.

Cancer management is complex and many other treatments that can cause or contribute to fatigue are often employed in an effort to combat the disease. These include biological therapies, hormone treatment, steroids, and anti-depressants.

Managing fatigue is an important part of cancer treatment, and as such many methods are employed to either treat the cases of fatigue or provide cancer patients with coping strategies.

What are standard methods of dealing with cancer fatigue?

Treating the causes of fatigue is usually an effective method, but in many cases the origins of cancer fatigue are more obscure, or the condition is caused by a combination of different factors. If anaemia is the main cause of fatigue as mentioned in the previous section, then blood transfusions can be used to restore the number of red blood cells, thereby alleviating the condition and the fatigue it causes. Elevating the red blood cell count is known as an effective method of restoring a feeling of vitality and energy.

Drug treatment through psychostimulants is being pursued as a method of combating fatigue, and these drugs include modagenil and Ritalin.

Beyond these methods, lifestyle changes have been shown to be an effective method of handling fatigue. Although if you are suffering from cancer-related fatigue you are unlikely to feel up to exercising, exercise is known as an effective way of managing fatigue.

Light or moderate physical activity stimulates mechanisms in your body that can help combat fatigue. These include the release of endorphins, a class of ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters that can hugely elevate mood and restore a feeling of energy. Furthermore, this kind of exercise strengthens the body and promotes good health, all of which contribute to feeling better and more energetic. Even walking a certain distance each day and gradually increasing how much you do is enough to receive the positive effects of cancer.

Making time to rest is also an important coping strategy. Cancers affecting the elderly or affecting people with advanced cancers are known to take their physical toll, and arranging some time to sit or lie down and recover is a good way of saving energy and coping with fatigue.

Ultimately many of these methods prove effective for many people, but there are undoubtedly instances where these approaches may not be enough to combat cancer-related fatigue. In these instances, receiving treatment from alternative sources can help. Acupuncture is one such source, and in the next section we will look at where this ancient Chinese treatment can help cancer patients struggling with fatigue.

How can acupuncture help treat fatigue in cancer patients?

Unfortunately compared to many other studies into the benefits of acupuncture for cancer patients, this particular area has not been very well researched. That being said however, a large scale trial is currently being run to investigate whether or not acupuncture can positively impact cancer-related fatigue.

The evidence to date does suggest that both acupuncture and its sister treatment acupressure can help improve the energy levels of cancer patients, and through that, improve their activity and feelings of tiredness. While more research is needed to reach any concrete conclusions, there is certainly an indication that suggests that acupuncture can be beneficial in cancer-related fatigue.

Acupuncture treatments will typically involve the expert application of sterile stainless steel needles into specific acupoints across the body. Acupressure aims to stimulate these self-same acupoints, however rather than needles pressure applied through fingers, thumbs, elbows, and sometimes specially designed tools is used.

As of yet there is no clear mechanism of how acupuncture works to release tiredness, but theories abound. According to more modern practitioners of acupuncture, the practice can stimulate the release of natural analgesics, promote muscle relaxation, and combat anxiety, and through effects like these help a patient feel better.

Acupuncture can potentially offer a viable treatment for people suffering from cancer-related fatigue, particularly those who find that alternative methods of managing their condition have thus far proven unsuccessful. Remember that this type of treatment is meant to supplement and not replace your medical care, and that your doctor should be kept aware of any treatment you choose to pursue outside of your routine care.


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