Acupuncture to treat neuropathy in cancer patients

Cancer is one of the major medical problems we face in the world today. The condition is hugely variable and can take years to manifest itself in obvious symptoms, a point by which the cancer will have progressed and become difficult to treat. These difficulties are further exacerbated by the fact that cancer is not caused by a foreign pathogen or infectious agent, but is instead a consequence of changes in the behaviour and growth patterns of our own cells. This poses a unique therapeutic obstacle in that it is very difficult for treatments used to discriminate between cancer and healthy tissues.

All of these complexities need to be borne in mind when managing the disease, and an unfortunate consequence of these difficulties is that treatment can often result in severe side effects. In this article we look at cancer-related peripheral neuropathy, and more specifically, at how acupuncture can benefit people suffering from the ailment.

What is neuropathy?

Peripheral neuropathy is a condition affecting nerve function, particularly in the peripheral nervous system (the network of nerves running out from the spine and brain into our extremities). Nerves are the circuitry by which our body works. They carry signals to and from all of our sense organs, allowing us to experience the world around us, and they also signal to our muscles to co-ordinate movement.

When our nerves are damaged by certain disease or, as in this case, exposure to certain chemotherapeutic agents, we experience a characteristic set of symptoms that are caused by a loss of nerve function in the periphery.

The nerves most often affected in these cases by the condition called peripheral neuropathy are in the hands and feet. The symptom reported most often is probably a lack of sensation in these areas, which can be experienced as numbness or as if the affected areas are padded with wool. Many people also experience strange sensations in their periphery, including pins and needles and general tingling. In a smaller number of cases, these sensations can be accompanied by pain.

Peripheral neuropathy also involves a gradual loss of motor control, which is evidenced by diminished fine movements of the hands of feet. This can be quite subtle and affects people in different ways, but in most instances it is noticed as simple co-ordination becomes trickery than usual. For example, doing up your buttons or typing at speed may start taking longer and prove more difficult, or many people find they lose their balance and fall.

Another kind of neuropathy is called autonomic neuropathy, a condition which can cause constipation, impotence, and difficulties in jaw movement and swallowing. In this instance a different set of nerves are affected, hence resulting in a different selection of symptoms.

These changes in nerve function are most often suffered by cancer patients taking certain kinds of chemotherapeutic agents. As mentioned briefly in the introduction to this article, cancer treatments are often not very selective as it can become difficult to differentiate between cancer and healthy cells. Because of this, some chemotherapies damage other tissues in the body like our nerves.

Examples of chemotherapies causing neuropathies are:

  • Vinca alkaloids: A class of drugs which have the prefix ‘vin’ like vinblastine, vinorelbine, and vincristine.
  • Platinum drugs: Another group which possess the suffix ‘platin’ like oxaliplatin, cisplatin, and carboplatin.
  • Taxanes: These medications end with ‘taxel’ and a prominent example is paclitaxel.

There are other chemotherapies which can cause these symptoms, but the above examples include some of the most commonly used drugs in this area. Biological therapies like thalidomide and bortezomib are the treatments which most commonly cause nerve damage.

Many factors affect the onset of neuropathy, so even if you are taking one of these drugs you aren’t necessarily going to develop neuropathy. The length of treatment is an important factor, and these side effects are one of the reasons why cancer treatments are often delivered in ‘rounds’, after which you can rest and recover before receiving another bout of treatment.

The combination of drugs you are receiving can affect what side affects you might experience, and in many cases the most critical factor is how your body responds to particular drugs that are being administered.

How is neuropathy in cancer patients usually treated?

Cancer patients are usually closely monitored for adverse reactions to the potent cancer treatments available today. Your doctor will manage the dosage and duration of drugs based on how well you tolerate the treatment, and if you experience neuropathy chances are you will either be switched onto a different dosage, different medication, or taken off treatment temporarily to allow for nerve recovery.

You should rest assured that in most cases neuropathy is temporary, but it is important to report any symptoms you observe to your doctor so that he or she can take the appropriate steps towards adjusting your treatment and allowing for recovery.

The symptoms of neuropathy, most particularly pain, can be managed through medicinal treatment. Certain anti-depressants and painkillers can effectively y manage the pain, but many doctors also recommend alternative therapies like massage as well.

Acupuncture is a complementary therapy with some applications that may be useful in treating cancer neuropathies. In the following section we will look at how such treatments may be useful in managing neuropathy suffered by cancer patients.

Can acupuncture treat neuropathy in cancer patient?

Acupuncture is a complementary medical practice that has its roots in ancient China, and the original principles that define the practice revolve around restoring the healthy flow of a life energy called Qi to parts of the body that are suffering from disease as a consequence of poor Qi flow. Modern practitioners often take a different view, arguing that acupuncture achieves its goals by stimulating blood flow, muscle relaxation, and the nervous release of natural painkillers.

Acupuncture is used to treat a variety of conditions, and there is considerable controversy regarding its efficacy in a number of areas. That being said, some of the evidence available does support acupuncture as a method of treating a number of the side effects suffered by cancer patients like nausea and vomiting.

The evidence available to date, while limited, does suggest that acupuncture may benefit people suffering neuropathy as a result of cancer medication. While further research into the area will be needed before any concrete conclusions can be reached, the evidence available is promising.

Acupunctural treatments should only be sought as a complement to the existing care and management strategies employed by your doctor. You should take to your doctor about the acupuncture as their opinion can be invaluable. When pursuing acupuncture you should make sure that you are receiving your treatment from a qualified and experienced professional, preferably one registered with a regulating professional body like the British Acupuncture Council.

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