When can and when can’t acupuncture be used to help cancer patients?

Managing cancer is a complex, multi-faceted task that draws together many different disciplines to provide cancer patients with treatment and support. The condition itself is a demanding one, with many of its current treatments causing severe side effects due to their potency.

Cancer cells don’t possess the markers that identify them as pathogens which are exploited in treatments for infections and other diseases. As cells of the human body, it is often very difficult to discriminate between cancer cells and the healthy tissue in which they find themselves, which is why cancer treatments often cause severe side effects through the inadvertent damage of healthy tissues.

These side effects, and the symptoms of the cancer itself, are extremely physically and mentally trying, and as such complementary medical techniques are often sought to help cancer patients cope. In this article we take a look at when acupuncture can be used in cancer treatment, and when it can’t.

When can acupuncture be used for cancer patients?

Acupuncture is widely used in the Western world, but its roots stretch back to ancient China. It is estimated that the practice developed about 2,500 years ago, and the philosophies driving it revolved around restoring the healthy flow of a life energy called Qi.

Modern acupuncturists often adopt a different approach to acupuncture, believing that the techniques, which usually involve using needles to stimulate specific points on the body, are responsible for stimulating improved blood flow, muscle relaxation, and the release of certain pain relieving neurotransmitters from the nerves of the body.

The controversies surrounding acupuncture are not restricted to its mechanisms, but extend to whether or not the treatment is effective at all. While much research is still needed to reach concrete conclusions, there is evidence to support acupuncture as a valuable tool in the treatment of cancer-related maladies.

Acupuncture has shown promise in scientific trials testing for the effectiveness of acupuncture in the treatment of:

- Fatigue: Tiredness and exhaustion are common in late stage cancers and after rounds of chemo- and radiotherapy. Surgery to remove tumours can also take months to recover from, and in these instances acupuncture has shown some promise in restoring energy levels and combating fatigue.

- Pain: Many cancer patients experience pain as part of their condition or treatment, and the most common example is post-operative pain after surgeries to remove tumours. A variety of acupunctural techniques have shown promise in combating pain in cancer and after surgeries.

- Hot flushes: People suffering from breast and prostate cancers, both of which involve changes in hormone levels because of either the cancer or the treatments used, can experience unpleasant hot flashes which can be aided through acupunctural treatment.

- Neuropathy: Many chemotherapies and biological therapies can damage nerve endings causing a condition known as neuropathy. In many cases this is temporary, and recovery has been shown to benefit from acupuncture.

- Nausea and vomiting: Perhaps the most infamous side effects of cancer therapy, nausea and vomiting have been shown to benefit from acupunctural treatment as well.

-Breathlessness: Many cancer patients suffer from breathlessness as a consequence of either the cancer itself or treatment. Lung cancers, particularly advanced ones, can feature a tumour large enough to obstruct breathing. Many chemo- and radiotherapies can leave the chest vulnerable to infection, cause anaemia which in turn causes breathlessness, or damage lung tissue, all factors which ultimately cause cancer-related breathlessness. The evidence in support of acupuncture as a treatment of breathlessness is less clear than in other cases, however there is some indication that treatment might be beneficial.

While not always effective, there is some indication that acupuncture can suit cancer patients suffering from these conditions. In the next section we will look at instances where cancer patients are not suited to acupuncture.

When isn’t acupuncture suited for cancer patients?

Cancer patients with a particularly low platelet number or count might not be suited to acupunctural treatment. Platelets are found in our blood, and are responsible for the clotting response when we are cut or subject to some injury that causes bleeding. If you have a low platelet count, then your blood’s ability to clot is diminished, and as acupuncture involves penetrating the skin with a needle, there is a risk of excess bleeding which may be a medical concern.

Similarly a low number of white blood cells is an indication that acupuncture might not be suitable. White blood cells are responsible for a large part of our body’s defences against invading pathogens like viruses and bacteria. When we don’t have enough white blood cells circulating throughout our bodies, we are susceptible to infection through these agents. Cancers like leukaemias and lymphomas can affect our white cell count, and radio- and chemotherapy can damage cells of the bone marrow to similar effect. In these instances, the fact that acupuncture involves penetrating the skin (and therefore exposing it to pathogens) can pose a more serious risk of infection.

Cancers that affect the drainage of fluids through what is called the lymphatic system also mean that you may not be able to safely receive acupuncture. The lymphatic system is responsible for draining fluids from in-between tissues amongst many other roles, and poor drainage means a greater chance of infection.

If you are pregnant and seeking acupuncture treatment, it may not be advised as certain acupoints can cause a contraction of the muscles in the womb (the uterine wall).

A number of heart issues are contraindications for acupuncture as well. If you have a heart valve issue, a pacemaker, or a cardiac murmur then acupuncture is not recommended.

It is important that you consult your doctor before seeking any kind of alternative medical therapy. You may not be aware of a reason why the treatment isn’t suitable for you, or your doctor may recommend a particular acupuncturist or that you delay your acupuncture until after a round of treatment. Regardless of the outcome, it is important that you speak to your doctor before making such a decision as cancer management is complex.

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