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What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture applies needles, heat, pressure, and other therapies to certain places on the skin to cause a change in the physical functions of the body. The use of acupuncture is part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). TCM is a medical system that has been used for thousands of years to prevent, diagnose, and relieve patients of symptoms commonly associated with disease.
Acupuncture is based on the belief that qi (vital energy) flows through the body along a network of paths, called meridians. Qi is said to affect a person’s spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical condition. According to TCM, qi has two forces, yin and yang. Yin and yang are opposite forces that work together to form a whole. The forces of yin and yang depend on each other and are made from each other in an unending cycle, such as hot and cold, day and night, and health and disease. Nothing is ever all yin or all yang, both exist in all things, including people. Many of the major organs of the body are believed to be yin-yang pairs that must be in balance to be healthy. When a person’s yin and yang are not in balance, qi can become blocked. Blocked qi causes pain, illness, or other health problems. TCM uses acupuncture, diet, herbal therapy, meditation, physical exercise, and massage to restore health by unblocking qi and correcting the balance of yin and yang within the person.
Most acupuncturists in the United States practice acupuncture according to the traditions of Chinese medicine. However, there are other types of acupuncture that have different theories about meridians and acupoint locations.
What is the history of the discovery and use of acupuncture as a complementary and alternative therapy for cancer?
The oldest known medical book in China (second century BC) describes the use of needles to treat medical problems. The use of acupuncture spread to other Asian countries and to other regions of the world, including to Europe by the 1700s. In the United States, acupuncture has been used for about 200 years.
Research on acupuncture began in the United States in 1976. Twenty years later, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the acupuncture needle as a medical device. Its main use is to control symptoms associated with cancer, including the following:
What is the theory behind the claim that acupuncture is useful in cancer therapy?
According to TCM, qi can be unblocked by using acupuncture at certain places on the skin, called acupoints. Acupoints are places where the meridians come to the surface of the body. There are more than 360 acupoints on the human body, with specific acupoints for each condition being treated.
What physical effects may acupuncture have when used in cancer patients?
Acupuncture may cause physical responses in nerve cells, the pituitary gland, and parts of the brain. These responses can cause the body to release proteins, hormones, and brain chemicals that control a number of body functions. It is proposed that, in this way, acupuncture affects blood pressure and body temperature, boosts immune system activity, and causes the body’s natural painkillers, such as endorphins, to be released.
How is acupuncture administered?
The acupuncture method most well-known uses needles. Disposable, stainless steel needles that are slightly thicker than a human hair are inserted into the skin at acupoints. The acupuncture practitioner determines the correct acupoints to use to help alleviate specific symptoms. The inserted needles may be twirled, moved up and down at different speeds and depths, heated, or charged with a weak electric current. There are other acupuncture methods that do not use needles.
Some acupuncture techniques include the following:
Have any preclinical (laboratory or animal) studies been conducted using acupuncture?
Scientific studies on the use of acupuncture for cancer and its side effects began only recently. Laboratory and animal studies suggest that acupuncture can reduce vomiting caused by chemotherapy and may help the immune system be stronger during chemotherapy. Animal studies support the use of electro acupuncture to relieve cancer pain. Laboratory and animal studies have also looked at the role of acupuncture in stimulating immune functions, including increasing blood cell count and enhancing lymphocyte and natural killer cell activity.
Studies of the effect of acupuncture on the immune system
Studies of the effect of acupuncture on pain
Studies of the effect of acupuncture on muscle and joint pain from aromatase inhibitors
Studies of the effect of acupuncture on nausea and vomiting caused by cancer therapies
Studies of the effect of acupuncture on hot flashes in patients treated for cancer
Study of the effect of acupuncture on fatigue in cancer patients
Studies of the effect of acupuncture on xerostomia (dry mouth) in cancer patients
Studies of the effect of acupuncture on other symptoms of cancer and side effects of cancer treatment
Have any side effects or risks been reported from acupuncture?
There have been few complications reported. Problems are caused by using needles that are not sterile (free of germs) and from placing the needle in the wrong place, movement of the patient, or a defect in the needle. Problems include soreness and pain during sessions; feeling tired, lightheaded, or sleepy; and infections. Because chemotherapy and radiation therapy weaken the body’s immune system, a strict clean needle method must be used when acupuncture therapy is given to cancer patients. It is important to seek treatment from a qualified acupuncture practitioner who uses a new set of disposable (single-use) needles for each patient.
Is acupuncture approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use as a cancer therapy in the United States?
The FDA approved acupuncture needles for use by licensed practitioners in 1996. The FDA requires that sterile, nontoxic needles be used and that they be labeled for single use by qualified practitioners only.
More than 40 states and the District of Columbia have laws regulating acupuncture practice. The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (www.nccaom.org) certifies practitioners of acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Most states require this certification