Written by Karen Pilkington, Vinjar Fønnebø and the CAM-Cancer Consortium.
Updated April 27, 2016

Acupuncture for chemotherapy-associated nausea and vomiting

What is it?

Scientific name/Description

Acupuncture refers to the insertion of fine needles at specific points (acupuncture points or acupoints) on the body for the prevention or treatment of disease or the maintenance of health. The term ‘acupuncture’ is derived from Latin and means ‘piercing with a sharp instrument’. from Latinacus,‘needle’ (noun), andpungere,‘to prick or puncture’ (verb).


Acupuncture is usually performed with fine, solid needles but many variations exist. ‘Acupoints’ might, for instance, be stimulated by electrical currents with or without needles (electro-acupuncture), by pressure (acupressure involving use of ‘press’ needles, studs or manual pressure), by heat (moxibustion) or laser light (laser-acupuncture). Techniques that do not involve the insertion of needles are not always classed as acupuncture.

Acupuncture is often part of a complex intervention that includes use of herbal mixtures, moxibustion (burning of herbs), and dietary and lifestyle advice.

Application and dosage

Acupuncture is applied to the body surface including the ears and scalp. The dosage (number of points stimulated, depth of needle insertion, duration of stimulation and frequency and duration of treatment sessions) depends on the condition treated. Sometimes only one acupoint is stimulated; more commonly several needles are applied. A specific area of the body (for example, ear-acupuncture) may be treated but, more commonly, several areas are needled. Needles are usually removed after a 30 minute treatment session but press needles and studs may be left for several days or, in some cases, weeks. Needles may be stimulated by manual manipulation or left unstimulated. Treatments may be repeated at regular intervals, for example once or twice weekly, or treatment can comprise of a single session.

The placement of needles is determined by the condition being treated and, to some extent, by the type of acupuncture being applied. In traditional Chinese or East Asian forms of acupuncture, acupoints are considered to be located along channels or ‘meridians’ through which a vital force or energy (‘Qi’) flows.1 Diagnosis is carried out using a number of methods including peripheral pulses, the appearance of the tongue, speech, history and overall impressions of the patient. The ‘symptom pattern’ and underlying ‘imbalances’ guide selection of points. In ‘Western medical’ acupuncture, points are selected according to contemporary neurophysiology and are considered to be sites where external stimuli result in a greater sensory stimulus, so-called ‘trigger points’.2,3


The history of acupuncture can be traced to ancient China and its Taoist philosophy.4 It has been practised in China for more than 2000 years and in other East Asian countries including Japan ,Korea and Vietnam, for between 1000 to 2000 years arriving in Europe several hundred years ago.5 In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the life energy ‘Qi’ flowing through the body in meridians and the balance of ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ are thought to determine human health. Illness is seen as an imbalance of these energies and acupuncture is perceived to be one method for re-balancing the imbalance. Traditionally, acupuncture was not used primarily for specific problems such as pain control but to treat a wide range of symptoms or problems based on the pattern of diagnosis.5 Yet, in recent years, pain-control seems to have become its main purpose in many clinical settings.

Acupuncture became particularly popular outside Asia after the US president Richard Nixon visited China in 1971.4 Acupuncture treatments were originally provided by traditional acupuncturists but as interest in the technique extended, health professionals adopted and adapted the techniques, using acupuncture alongside conventional treatment.

Claims of efficacy/alleged indications

According to TCM concepts, acupuncture is a therapy for most symptoms and diseases. Modern Western concepts are centred around conditions likely to be influenced through effects on neurotransmitters, such as musculoskeletal pain and nausea and vomiting.3,7

Mechanisms of action

Considerable research effort has been focused on finding physiological or histological evidence of the existence of concepts postulated within TCM acupuncture such as Qi, meridians and specific acupuncture points but conclusive proof has not been obtained.6 Neurophysiological theories to explain acupuncture’s modes of action in pain have been developed, e.g. gate-control mechanism, and effects on neurotransmitters like endorphins.7

Prevalence of use

In many countries, acupuncture is now one of the most popular forms of CAM. Most modern pain clinics and many oncology centres across the world routinely offer acupuncture as one of several therapeutic options. Exact prevalence figures vary from country to country and from setting to setting. A survey of cancer patients in Europe reported use of acupuncture by between 2 to 4% of patients before and after diagnosis but use varied by cancer type and acupuncture was used by up to 17% of gynaecological cancer patients.8,9

Legal issues

In most countries, acupuncture can be administered by both medically-trained and statutorily regulated health professionals (e.g. doctors, physiotherapists, nurses, midwives) and by non-medically-trained acupuncturists. The regulation of acupuncture varies from one country to another. In the UK, there is voluntary rather than statutory regulation and local authorities can regulate hygiene of acupuncture practice.1

Cost and expenditures

In the UK, average costs are £40-£70 for the first session, with ordinary appointments of between 30-60 minutes between £25-£50.1 One series of treatments would normally comprise 5-20 sessions. In Germany, costs of acupuncture for some conditions are covered by public health insurers.

Citation Karen Pilkington, Vinjar Fønnebø, CAM-Cancer Consortium. Acupuncture for chemotherapy-associated nausea and vomiting [online document]. http://ws.cam-cancer.org/The-Summaries/Mind-body-interventions/Acupuncture-for-chemotherapy-associated-nausea-and-vomiting. April 27, 2016.


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