Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine in Adjunctive Cancer Care

compiled by John & Barbara Connor, M.Ac., L.Ac.

John and I would like to share with you today some of the recent studies on the benefits of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine in adjunctive cancer care. Individual studies estimate that as many as 69% of US cancer patients employ some type of complementary and alternative medicine. 

In recent years, Traditional Chinese Medicine has been increasingly used in conjunction with chemotherapy and radiotherapy for the purpose of alleviating and even eliminating the toxic effects of cancer treatments, as well as of improving overall efficacy. (Ling et al 2014)

The following are summaries of some of the recent studies on the benefits of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine in adjunctive cancer care:

This present study was performed to evaluate the feasibility of providing acupuncture in the hospital setting for breast cancer patients and to evaluate the short-term effect of acupuncture on stress, anxiety, and pain. These results also suggest that acupuncture may be an important intervention in the postoperative setting for breast cancer patients. (Mallory et al 2015)

In this study a total of 60 patients with gynecological tumors treated by chemotherapy were randomly divided into two groups. The treatment group (30 cases) underwent wrist-ankle acupuncture and ginger moxibustion, whereas tropisetron hydrochloride and dexamethasone were intravenously administered to the control group (30 cases) during chemotherapy. Wrist-ankle acupuncture combined with ginger moxibustion could prevent gastrointestinal tract reactions to chemotherapy in cancer patients. In addition, the proposed method had fewer side effects, lower cost, and less risk. (Liu et al 2015)

Twenty-four randomized controlled trials involving 4889 patients with cancer pain were systematically reviewed. The results of these studies suggest that traditional herbal medicine combined with conventional therapy is efficacious as an adjunctive therapy for patients with cancer pain. However, more research, including well-designed, rigorous, and larger clinical trials, are necessary to address these issues. (Lee et al 2015)

This meta-analysis of 22 studies suggests that traditional herbal medicine combined with conventional therapy can provide an effective adjunctive therapy for nasopharyngeal cancer. More research and well-designed, rigorous, large clinical trials are required to address these issues. (Kim et al 2015)

This study found that Chinese medicine herbs based on syndrome differentiation have positive effects on survival of patients with unresectable hepatocellular carcinoma. Furthermore, combination therapy of Chinese medicine and Western medicine are recommended in hepatocellular carcinoma treatment. (Man et al 2015)

After comparing the detailed information of four convincing randomized controlled trials (Chen and Shen, Xu et al., Chu, and Liu), we found that common solid tumors of adult patients, such as colon cancer, gastric cancer, lung cancer, and breast cancer, were included in all these studies. Astragalus membranaceus and Angelica sinensis were used in all their Chinese herbal medicine (CHM) prescriptions, which is a classic coupled CHM for replenishing Qi and Blood. Moreover, for tonifying the kidney CHM was used in three of the studies, such as sealwort, glossy privet fruit, Radix Polygoni Multiflori, Radix Rehmanniae Preparata, and Fructus Psoraleae. This suggested that tonifying kidney CHM may contribute to the treatment of leucopenia caused by myelosuppression. Our results demonstrated that Chinese herbal medicine significantly protected peripheral blood WBCs from a decrease caused by chemotherapy or radiotherapy. There were no significant protective effects on peripheral RBCs, hemoglobin, or platelets, which may be related to low quality and small sample of included studies. (Youji et al 2015)

Data from six prospective analyzed studies indicate at least 3-month effects after the end of acupuncture treatment for flashes in women with breast cancer and men with prostate cancer. However, larger randomized trials with long-term follow-up will be needed to confirm these preliminary findings. (Frisk et al 2014)

The combined therapy of acupuncture and auricular acupressure achieves the anti-depression effect in treatment of depression in breast cancer and has less side effects and high safety. The efficacy is superior to fluoxetine hydrochloride capsules. (Xiao & Liu 2014)

Lymphoedema is a persistent symptom experienced by women recovering from breast cancer. Our study suggests that acupuncture may stabilise symptoms and no major safety concerns were identified, so further research is needed. (Smith et al 2014)

Our study showed that acupuncture has positive effects in cancer treatment patients who experience nausea, vomiting, pain, poor sleep quality and anxiety as side effects of chemotherapy. Chemotherapy-related side effects in cancer patients could be decreased by the concurrent use of acupuncture. (Tas et al 2014)

The results of this randomized controlled trial suggest that wrist-ankle acupuncture not only had an analgesic effect equal to or greater than oral morphine sulphate in  primary liver cancer patients with moderate to severe post-transcatheter arterial chemoembolization pain, but also reduced the incidence of post-operative abdominal distention. (Zeng et al 2014)

Multiple myeloma (MM) is characterised by an increase in plasma cells, particularly in the bone marrow but also in other organs and systems, and with the abnormal production of immunoglobulin. Bortezomib, a current treatment option, inhibits angiogenesis by proteasome inhibition and is known to be effective in the treatment of MM. Peripheral neuropathy (PN) is a common dose-related side effect of bortezomib in patients with MM. At the end of the sixth month the neuropathic pain assessment score was 0/10. There was no side effect of acupuncture treatment. Based on the results of this study involving a single patient acupuncture seems promising as a complementary medical treatment for neuropathic pain from bortezomib-induced PN. Clinical studies involving more cases and electrophysiological studies are necessary to investigate the effectiveness of acupuncture. (Mandiroglu et al 2014)

The result of our systematic review suggested that the effectiveness of acupuncture in palliative care for cancer patients is promising, especially in reducing chemotherapy or radiotherapy-induced side effects and cancer pain. Acupuncture may be an appropriate adjunctive treatment for palliative care. (Lian et al 2014)

This study found that acupuncture was feasible, safe, and a helpful treatment adjunct for cancer patients experiencing uncontrolled pain in this study. Randomized placebo-controlled trials are needed to confirm these results. (Garcia et al 2014)

Here, we report a case of a woman with severe and persistent post-mastectomy pain syndrome who was successfully treated with acupuncture. (Baumi et al 2014)

This study found that Traditional Chinese medicinal herbal intervention can increase efficacy and reduce toxicity when combined with epidermal growth factor receptor tyrosine kinase inhibitor (EGFR-TKI) for advanced non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), although this result requires further verification by more well designed studies. (Liu et al 2014)

In this randomized controlled trial involving sixty patients with pancreatic cancer pain electroacupuncture was an effective treatment for relieving pancreatic cancer pain. (Chen et al 2013)

This pilot study on a case series showed that acupuncture might be beneficial for reducing pain and improving quality of life in cancer patients. (Vinjamury et al 2013)

The findings of this study suggest that acupuncture is feasible and safe in patients with breast cancer with joint pain caused by aromatase inhibitors. A larger study with adequately powered to confirm these results and detect clinically relevant effects is needed. (Oh et al 2013)


Compassionate Acupuncture and Healing Arts, providing craniosacral acupuncture, herbal and nutritional medicine in Durham, North Carolina. Phone number 919-309-7753.


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