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Acupuncture for Symptom Management

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By M. Kay Garcia, Dr.P.H., M.S.N., L.Ac.

Acupuncture with Kay.jpgAcupuncture is an important accompanying therapy for symptom management among cancer patients. MD Anderson has offered acupuncture to patients since 2003. Common questions physicians and patients ask about acupuncture are: When should I use it? Is it safe?

First, acupuncture doesn't work for everyone, but many do benefit when it's carefully integrated into their overall treatment plan.

The effects of acupuncture often are cumulative, so it's important not to expect too much too soon. We consider 8-10 treatments as one course. For long-term problems, multiple courses may be necessary.

What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture involves the placement of solid, sterile, stainless steel needles into various points on the body that are believed to have reduced bioelectrical resistance and increased conductance.

Various techniques are used to stimulate the needles and improve the therapeutic effects, including manual manipulation or adding a mild electrical current. Stainless steel or gold (semi-permanent) needles, or "studs," are sometimes placed at specific points on the ears and left in place 3-5 days.

When performed correctly, acupuncture has been shown to be a safe, minimally invasive procedure with very few side effects.

Acupuncture benefits

Clinical trials suggest that acupuncture is effective for treating nausea/vomiting and some types of pain. There's also a growing body of evidence for treating hot flashes, xerostomia (dry mouth) and fatigue.


Though it also may help other symptoms such as constipation, loss of appetite, insomnia, anxiety, depression, peripheral neuropathy and stress, not enough rigorous clinical trials have been conducted to draw meaningful conclusions.

That said, acupuncture is a safe and relatively inexpensive treatment option. If patients are interested, and their physicians approve, it's an important option to consider for helping to manage uncontrolled symptoms.

There may also be a joint effect when acupuncture is added to other treatment approaches. For example, adding it to a comprehensive pain management regimen may allow patients to reduce the amount of medications they're taking and reduce unpleasant or debilitating side effects.

Are there risks?
Risks include fainting, mild discomfort, bruising and possible infection. Because acupuncture uses tiny, solid stainless steel needles, the risk of either bleeding or infection, however, is extremely low.

For more information on how acupuncture may benefit cancer patients, contact the Integrative Medicine Center at 713-794-4700. Or, if you'd like to schedule an appointment, ask your MD Anderson physician to submit an online consultation request.

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