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Experts say acupuncture and acupressure can reduce the amount of opioids that people with cancer take. Getty Images
  • Researchers say acupuncture and acupressure can help ease the pain of some people with cancer.
  • They add that the use of acupuncture and acupressure can also reduce the need to prescribe opioids for cancer pain.
  • They also note these methods can boost the immune system because they work on healing the whole body.

Acupuncture and acupressure are effective ways of relieving pain associated with cancer.

That’s according to a study published today in JAMA Oncology, an American Medical Association peer-reviewed journal.

Previous studies into acupuncture’s effect on cancer pain have shown inconsistent results, the researchers noted.

This new research, sourced from English and Chinese language biomedical databases, looked at randomized clinical trials comparing acupuncture and acupressure with a “sham control,” analgesic therapy, or other “usual” methods for managing cancer.

The researchers reported that the analysis showed acupuncture and/or acupressure was “significantly associated” with reduced pain and decreased use of analgesics (pain relievers), although the evidence level was moderate.

The researchers recommend more rigorous trials be done to identify the effects on specific types of cancer as well as to integrate acupuncture and acupressure into clinical care to reduce opioid use.

“If acupuncture becomes a more standard method of pain management, patients will be less likely to need opioids, or will not require doses that are as high,” Janet Thomson, an acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist based in Oakland, California, told Healthline. “Not only does that decrease the addictive potential of opioids but reduces the side effects of opioids such as constipation, which can be truly brutal for patients.”

Nicole Glathe, a licensed acupuncturist and pain management specialist based in Los Angeles, has seen firsthand how acupuncture can help people with cancer.

“My father was diagnosed with stage four glioblastoma (brain cancer) in 2017 and passed in 2018,” she told Healthline. “As he rapidly progressed, he got increasingly severe headaches. His doctors threw every painkiller under the sun at him, but acupuncture was the only thing to reduce his pain to a manageable level.”

Glathe, who is launching a clinically backed herbal medicine platform called Elix in January, said the study can have a “massive” effect on not only how the pain can be managed, but how effective other forms of treatment can be.

“If a patient doesn’t have to use additional pain medication, we’ve lessened the potential for side effects or addition,” she said. “This is especially important during cancer treatment because the patient is generally receiving high doses of chemotherapy or other harsh medications. Finding ways to manipulate the body’s own methods of pain reduction avoids overtaxing the body. Acupuncture has also been shown to reduce stress and nausea, both of which can be highly beneficial during cancer treatment.”

Acupuncture and acupressure largely remain outside mainstream medicine in the United States, despite being around for thousands of years.

Both have origins in China and India and both became staples of traditional Chinese medicine.

Acupuncturists use needles while acupressure practitioners use direct pressure from their fingers to manipulate areas of pain or related areas in the body, stimulating muscles and increasing blood flow and oxygen.

It’s thought that various pressure points in the body connect through “meridians,” also known as energy channels.

Manipulating energy throughout the body is thought to promote healing and decrease pain through the release of chemical endorphins.

Glathe said acupuncture can boost immunity and physiologically do the same work as opioids, “by activating the endogenous opioid system, meaning that acupuncture might actually work in similar pathways as opioids.”

“There are potential immune-boosting properties of acupuncture, which could potentially assist the conventional medicine,” she said.

Unlike other methods of dealing with cancer and the side effects of treatment, acupuncture and acupressure deal with the effects on the entire human body, said Tsao-Lin Moy, MSOM, LMT, CSMA, a licensed acupuncturist and the founder of Integrative Healing Arts in New York City.

“Acupuncture and acupressure is ideal for treating patients with cancer undergoing chemotherapy as it helps with conditions such as nausea, dry mouth, pain post-surgery, anxiety, joint pain from aromatase inhibitors, peripheral neuropathy, fatigue, poor sleep, and help with immune regulation,” she told Healthline. “What is important to consider is that acupuncture uses a whole health model (that is) effective because it does not treat the person with the disease. Chinese medicine looks at who it is and how the disease is manifesting in that person.”

The study also points out any adverse effects of acutherapy on people with cancer were “minor” and didn’t require medical evaluation or intervention.

The study involved a systemic review that included 17 random control trials involving 1,111 people with cancer and a meta-analysis that included 14 random control trials involving 920 people with cancer.

The research acknowledged its own limitations, including substantial diversity in its subjects, the complexity of cancer, and the lack of baseline sources of analgesics used.

It also stated that more research is necessary.

“I think the Western world is open and optimistic about new methods of treatment, especially when it comes to treating pain,” said Ani Baran, a licensed acupuncturist and owner of NJ Acupuncture Center in New Jersey. “The opioid crisis has affected the country’s rich and poor alike. It is a great equalizer and knows no bounds, so I think the world is very receptive to new approaches in medicine. Especially those that are minimally invasive and affordable.”

Baran told Healthline the biggest takeaway from the study was acutherapy can do the work of pain-relieving medication.

“(That) is beyond promising and deserves great attention,” she said. “With acupuncture having little or no side effects, and being so minimally invasive, it is always worth a try.”