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Acupuncture (PDQ®): Complementary and alternative medicine - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Human / Clinical Studies


In a clinical case series, 28 cancer patients who were treated with electroacupuncture (EA) while undergoing chemotherapy experienced no declines in T cells (CD3 +, CD4 +, CD8 +) or in NK cell activity, both of which are usually suppressed by chemotherapy.[7] Similar findings were reported in a study comparing EA to the control in patients receiving chemotherapy for breast, colorectal cancer, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.[8]

In another clinical case series, 48 patients with leukopenia —including two cancer patients—who were treated with manual acupuncture experienced improvements in leukocyte count, intracutaneous phytohemagglutinin (PHA), and immunoglobulin (IgG, IgA, and IgM) levels after 14 daily acupuncture treatments, compared with their pretreatment levels.[6]

Effect of Acupuncture on Cancer Pain

Seven clinical studies of acupuncture as a treatment for cancer-related pain have been reported in the English language (refer to Table 1 at the end of this section).[9,10,11,12,13,14,15] Three studies were randomized controlled clinical trials, with two studies conducted in China and one in France.[10,14,15] Four studies were case series, with one each from England, France, Hong Kong, and the United States.[9,11,12,13]

One randomized trial compared classical Chinese acupuncture, acupuncture point injection with freeze-dried human transfer factor, and conventional analgesic treatment in patients with gastric cancer pain.[10] The investigators reported an equivalent analgesic effect among the three groups observed after 2 months of treatment; however, the conventionally treated group experienced significantly superior analgesia compared with both acupuncture treatment groups during the first 10 days of treatment. The researchers reported that the patients in both acupuncture treatment groups also experienced improved quality of life and a decrease in the side effects of chemotherapy, in addition to analgesia.

A nonrandomized, single-arm, observational clinical study evaluated the effect of auricular acupuncture in 20 cancer patients who were still experiencing pain after treatment with analgesics.[11] While patients continued their analgesic medication, auricular acupuncture needles were embedded in ear acupuncture points, chosen according to clinical symptoms and electrodermal response, and were left in place until they fell out. In some cases, the needles remained in place for 35 days, while in others they fell out after 5 days. Pain intensity was measured by a nurse on the Visual Analog Scale (VAS) on day 0 and day 60, and the data were analyzed using a t test. The results showed that pain intensity decreased or remained stable after auricular acupuncture in all patients, with a significant average pain intensity decrease of 33 mm (P < .001). The same investigators later reported a larger (n = 90) randomized, blinded, controlled trial in which cancer pain intensity was significantly decreased (by 36%) in an auricular acupuncture treatment group, in comparison with control groups (acupuncture at placebo points or auricular seeds placed at placebo points) after 2 months of treatment (P < .001).[14]

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