Pilot Study Supports the Use of Acupuncture for Pain Relief in Cancer Patients

Garcia MK, Driver L, Haddad R, Lee R, Palmer JL, Wei Q, Frenkel M, Cohen 
Integr Cancer Ther. 2014 Mar;13(2):133-40. doi: 10.1177/1534735413510558. Epub 2013 Nov 25. 

Among cancer patients, pain is one of the most prominent and foremost complaints that should be addressed during treatment. Pain can have numerous etiologies, caused by the disease itself or from side effects of treatment methods. Successful relief from pain can vastly improve a cancer patient’s mental, emotional, as well as physical state of recovery. Traditional pain management methods include pain medications, such as opioids, which can cause negative side effects which can impact daily life dramatically. Because of this, alternative methods to treating pain and side effects from cancer therapies are being explored. Numerous surveys and reviews have shown acupuncture to be one such method, which has been found to have fewer side effects than pharmacological interventions.

Research supporting the use of acupuncture alone for the relief of pain in cancer patients is insufficient, with reliable and thorough randomised-controlled trials being scarce. However, onemeta-analysisconcluded that the use of acupuncture in conjunction with drug therapies was significantly more effective than drug therapies alone for the relief of pain in this patient population.

A handful of cancer treatment institutions across the United States have observed this effect clinically and have expanded their treatment repertoires to include alternative therapies such as yoga, meditation, massage, and acupuncture. One such facility is the Integrative Medical Center at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX which has been providing both inpatient and outpatient acupuncture services to patients for over a decade. Recently, MD Anderson Cancer Center set out to explore the possibility of such a synergistic effect between acupuncture and traditional cancer treatment for pain relief with an expertly designed nonrandomizedpilot feasibility study. Their findings were published inIntegrative Cancer Therapiesand their results seem promising.

52 participants began the study, with the average length of time patients had been suffering from and receiving treatments for pain being over two years (31 months.) Participants had a wide range of pain locations and severities, causing researchers to utilize individualized treatment protocols for each patient based upon their specific TCM diagnosis and symptoms.

Patients received a total of 10 acupuncture treatments, each with a 25 minute retention time. Acupuncture treatments implemented traditional Chinese medicine point locations and disease diagnosis - omitting point selection only in cases of an acupuncture point location on the same anatomical site as an active tumor. Electroacupuncture stimulation was applied to needles at the discretion of the acupuncturist.

Outcome measures were obtained via thorough self-report questionnaires and compared with those administered at baseline. Forty-two patients successfully completed the study, and results were carefully analyzed. 90% of participants reported that pain severity and interference were significantly decreased at the end of treatment. 78% of participants had a reduction or no change in pain medications, while at the same time also experienced a clinically significant reduction in ‘worst pain,’ ‘least pain,’ ‘average pain,’ and ‘worst pain in 24 hours.’ Of those patients with a reduction in pain medication, 81% were prescribed opioids at baseline, and only 52% remained on opioids at follow-up. Importantly, no adverse effects were reported as a result of the study and 90% of participants rated the study satisfactory and “very useful.”

The Society for Acupuncture Research spoke with the chief investigator of the study, Dr. M.K. Garcia, about the methods, results, and implications of the study. Her informative interview comments are included in the full article (SAR member access only).


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