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  • Writer's pictureSurviving Breast Cancer

Acupuncture Offers Drug-Free Pain Relief for People Living with Breast Cancer

If you or someone you know is dealing with ongoing pain or currently undergoing breast cancer treatment, acupuncture may provide relief. Acupuncture, a drug-free pain management option, helps to control and improve many side effects from chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.

Several studies have shown that acupuncture can help with pain, fatigue, insomnia, neuropathy, and nausea. One of the most significant benefits of acupuncture is that it lasts for months, unlike pain medications, which many patients must take frequently.

What Is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a central part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), an ancient system of medicine. A fundamental belief in Chinese medicine is that vital energy “qi” (pronounced “chee”) flows through 20 pathways in the body. Therefore, if qi is blocked, the body can’t function at its peak. The goal of acupuncture is to open specific points on these pathways and release blocked qi.

The practice of acupuncture uses sterile, hair-thin needles inserted into specific points on the skin, called "acupuncture points," and then gently moved. Researchers theorize that acupuncture stimulates the nervous system to release natural painkillers and immune system cells. They then travel to weakened areas of the body and relieve symptoms.

While there is no evidence to show that acupuncture can help treat or cure cancer, multiple studies have confirmed that it provides excellent pain management options. In addition, growing evidence suggests that acupuncture surpassed other pain therapies, such as physical therapy, steroids, and pain medicine traditionally used to ease ongoing muscle and joint pain among cancer survivors.

Acupuncture is considered a complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), the term for medical products and practices not included in standard medical care. Other forms of CAM include massage, tai chi, and drinking green tea.

Types of Acupuncture

A recent study reviewed the effectiveness of two types of acupuncture: Electroacupuncture and Auricular (ear) acupuncture.

Electroacupuncture uses tiny, thin needles—about the width of a hair—and a very low-frequency electric current to stimulate points on the body. It is different from other acupuncture that doesn’t use an electrical current. Electroacupuncture is very customizable to each patient, and the needles are removed after each session.

Auricular (ear) acupuncture uses small studs that look like tiny earrings to stimulate up to ten points in a patient’s ear. The points are the same for each person, and the needles stay in the person’s ear for three to four days.

The study found that ​both types of acupuncture significantly reduced people’s chronic pain compared to usual care with or without medication; however, ear acupuncture is not as effective as electroacupuncture.

In addition, people were better able to tolerate electroacupuncture. Less than one percent of electroacupuncture participants dropped out of treatment because of side effects (most commonly bruising). However, eleven percent of those receiving ear acupuncture dropped out of treatment, primarily due to ear pain.

Important Things to Consider Before Trying Acupuncture

Check with your doctor to see if acupuncture might be right for you. Although millions of people are treated successfully with acupuncture every year, as with all therapies, acupuncture carries certain risks.

Check certification

Acupuncture practitioners must have a certain number of hours of training and should be certified. The American Board of Medical Acupuncture keeps a list of board-certified physicians training in an approved program. In addition, the National Certification Commission of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine website has a searchable practitioner directory of certified acupuncture practitioners who are not medical doctors.

Risk of lymphedema

Patients who have had lymph nodes removed from under the arm should not have needles inserted into that arm. Using acupuncture on that arm carries a risk of lymphedema or swelling caused by excess fluid in the arm. Instead, consider using other treatments on that arm, such as aromatherapy.

Risk of infection

It is standard practice to use disposable, single-use, sterile needles and to swab acupuncture areas with alcohol or a similar disinfectant before using needles. Infection is always a risk, but the risk is higher if the acupuncturist does not follow this process. In addition, people with low white blood cell counts are at an increased risk of infection during acupuncture because a low white blood cell count weakens their immune systems.

Risk of bleeding for certain people

Because of the risk of bleeding, people who have bleeding disorders or low white blood cell counts and those who take blood thinners shouldn’t have acupuncture.

Risk of reducing chemotherapy effectiveness because of using herbal supplements

Sometimes acupuncture incorporates the use of herbal supplements. However, do not take herbal supplements while undergoing chemotherapy, as they can reduce the effectiveness of chemotherapy.

Resources You Can Count On

Dealing with breast cancer and the pain of treatment can be challenging. Your support enables Surviving Breast Cancer to provide a suite of programs and resources and online support groups to ensure that no one is alone.

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