Written by Karen Pilkington, Edzard Ernst and the CAM-Cancer Consortium.
Updated November 25, 2017

Acupuncture in cancer pain

Abstract and key points

  • Acupuncture entails needling of specific points on the body surface.
  • Some positive effects have been reported but the evidence on acupuncture in cancer pain is not conclusive.
  • Serious complications are probably rare.

Acupuncture usually entails needling specific points of the body surface. According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) philosophy, illness is caused by imbalances of energies or a disruption to the flow of energy in the body and acupuncture is seen as a treatment that corrects these problems. Many practitioners advocate its use for a wide range of conditions and symptoms.

Several reviews of the evidence have been published but, according to the most reliable evidence, a Cochrane systematic review from 2015, no firm conclusions about the effectiveness of acupuncture for controlling cancer pain could be drawn. Most trials generated positive results but the trials had methodological limitations and were associated with a high risk of bias.

Mild adverse effects can be expected in about 10% of all cases and serious complications, such as pneumothorax and hepatitis, seem to be rare.

Read about the regulation, supervision and reimbursement of acupuncture at NAFKAMs website CAM Regulation.

Citation Karen Pilkington, Edzard Ernst, CAM-Cancer Consortium. Acupuncture in cancer pain [online document]. http://ws.cam-cancer.org/The-Summaries/Mind-body-interventions/Acupuncture-in-cancer-pain. November 25, 2017.

References

  1. BAcC (British Acupuncture Council) website. Ten Top Things to Know. Accessed 2nd November 2017.
  2. Filshie, J., Cummings, M. Western medical acupuncture. In: Ernst, E., White, A.  (Eds). Acupuncture: A Scientific Appraisal. 1999. Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford. pp 31-59.
  3. White A; Editorial Board of Acupuncture in Medicine. Western medical acupuncture: a definition. Acupunct Med. 2009 27(1):33-5.
  4. White A, Ernst E. Introduction. In: Ernst, E., White, A. (Eds). Acupuncture: A Scientific Appraisal. 1999. Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford. pp1-10.
  5. Birch S, Kaptchuk T. History, nature and current practice of acupuncture: an East Asian perspective. In: Ernst, E., White, A.  (Eds). Acupuncture: A Scientific Appraisal. 1999. Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford. pp 11-30.
  6. Ahn AC, Colbert AP, Anderson BJ, Martinsen OG, Hammerschlag R, Cina S, Wayne PM, Langevin HM. Electrical properties of acupuncture points and meridians: a systematic review. Bioelectromagnetics. 2008 29(4):245-56.
  7. Zhao ZQ. Neural mechanism underlying acupuncture analgesia. Prog Neurobiol 2008; 84(4):355-375.
  8. Molassiotis A, Browall M, Milovics L, Panteli V, Patiraki E, Fernandez-Ortega P. Complementary and alternative medicine use in patients with gynecological cancers in Europe. Int J Gynecol Cancer. 2006 16 Suppl 1:219-24.
  9. Molassiotis A, Fernadez-Ortega P, Pud D, Ozden G, Scott JA, Panteli V, Margulies A, Browall M, Magri M, Selvekerova S, Madsen E, Milovics L, Bruyns I, Gudmundsdottir G, Hummerston S, Ahmad AM, Platin N, Kearney N, Patiraki E. Use of complementary and alternative medicine in cancer patients: a European survey. Ann Oncol. 2005 16(4):655-63.
  10. Paley CA, Johnson MI, Tashani OA, Bagnall AM. Acupuncture for cancer pain in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015 Oct 15;(10):CD007753.
  11. Choi TY, Lee MS, Kim TH, Zaslawski C, Ernst E. Acupuncture for the treatment of cancer pain: a systematic review of randomised clinical trials. Support Care Cancer 2012;20(6):1147-58.
  12. Lian WL, Pan MQ, Zhou DH, Zhang ZJ. Effectiveness of acupuncture for palliative care in cancer patients: a systematic review. Chin J Integr Med. 2014 20(2):136-47.
  13. Garcia MK, McQuade J, Haddad R, Patel S, Lee R, Yang P, Palmer JL, Cohen L. Systematic review of acupuncture in cancer care: a synthesis of the evidence. J Clin Oncol. 2013 31(7):952-60.
  14. White A, Hayhoe S, Ernst E. Survey of Adverse Events Following Acupuncture Acupunct Med. 1997; 15:67-70.
  15. Witt CM, Pach D, Brinkhaus B, Wruck K, Tag B, Mank S, Willich SN. Safety of acupuncture: results of a prospective observational study with 229,230 patients and introduction of a medical information and consent form. Forsch Komplementmed. 2009 Apr;16(2):91-7.
  16. White A. A cumulative review of the range and incidence of significant adverse events associated with acupuncture. Acupunct Med. 2004; 22(3):122-123.
  17. Ernst E. Deaths after acupuncture: a systematic review. Int J Risk Safety 2010; 22(3):131-136.
  18. BMAS (British Medical Acupuncture Society). Code of Practice & Complaints Procedure. Version 9 December 2009. Accessed 2nd November 2017. 
  19. Lau CH, Wu X, Chung VC, Liu X, Hui EP, Cramer H, et al. Acupuncture and Related Therapies for Symptom Management in Palliative Cancer Care: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Medicine (Baltimore). 2016;95(9):e2901.
  20. Tao WW, Jiang H, Tao XM, Jiang P, Sha LY, Sun XC. Effects of Acupuncture, Tuina, Tai Chi, Qigong, and Traditional Chinese Medicine Five-Element Music Therapy on Symptom Management and Quality of Life for Cancer Patients: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of pain and symptom management. 2016;51(4):728-47.
  21. Lee PL, Tam KW, Yeh ML, Wu WW. Acupoint stimulation, massage therapy and expressive writing for breast cancer: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Complementary therapies in medicine. 2016;27:87-101.
  22. Chiu HY, Hsieh YJ, Tsai PS. Systematic review and meta-analysis of acupuncture to reduce cancer-related pain. European journal of cancer care. 2017;26(2).
  23. Sharif Nia H, Pahlevan Sharif S, Yaghoobzadeh A, Yeoh KK, Goudarzian AH, Soleimani MA, et al. Effect of acupressure on pain in Iranian leukemia patients: A randomized controlled trial study. Int J Nurs Pract. 2017;23(2).
  24. Yeh CH, Chien LC, Lin WC, Bovbjerg DH, van Londen GJ. Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial of Auricular Point Acupressure to Manage Symptom Clusters of Pain, Fatigue, and Disturbed Sleep in Breast Cancer Patients. Cancer nursing. 2016;39(5):402-10.