Acupuncture Is a ‘Worthwhile’ Approach to Decrease Cancer-Related Pain, Expert Says

Acupuncture has been shown to decrease cancer-related pain, and it most recently was recommended by several organizations for certain patients with breast cancer.

Over the past several years, study findings have demonstrated that acupuncture may reduce chronic pain in cancer survivors and can even reduce the use of painkillers.

And now, several leading cancer organizations recommend acupuncture to manage breast cancer-related pain.

“Acupuncture has the biggest research base (of integrative methods) in terms of improving pain, because it dates back many years — centuries in fact — in terms of being an effective treatment, while having side effects that are quite manageable,” Dr. Dawn L. Hershman, a professor of medicine and epidemiology and director of the Breast Oncology and co-leader of the Cancer Population Science Program at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center at Columbia University in New York, said in an interview with CURE®.

What Is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine procedure that involves the insertion of thin needles into the skin at strategic points. It is not completely understood how acupuncture works to relieve pain, but prior research conducted at Johns Hopkins Medicine suggests that it stimulates the central nervous system.

Hershman noted that the side effects of acupuncture may include discomfort at the insertion site, something she said is often “minimal” compared with other methods of pain relief, such as opioids, which can be associated with addiction and unwanted side effects.

In a 2021 study led by Hershman, more than half (64%) of patients with early-stage breast cancer who were receiving an aromatase inhibitor saw a clinically meaningful decrease in pain after undergoing 12 weeks of acupuncture.

More recently, in September 2022, the Society for Integrative Oncology and the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) updated their guidelines for cancer-related pain to strongly recommend acupuncture for patients with breast cancer who are experiencing joint pain related to aromatase inhibitors.

Finding and Paying for Acupuncture

By creating practice guidelines, the Society for Integrative Oncology and ASCO are hoping that health care systems will start to offer services such as acupuncture so that insurance will cover the procedures.

Hershman said that in the past, one of the main barriers to acupuncture has been the cost. However, the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS), as well as some private insurers, have started to cover at least part of the cost incurred from acupuncture treatments.

“We’re seeing efforts to reduce long-term (opioid) addiction and improve pain efforts by (health insurers) to try to cover these costs,” Hershman said.

Another barrier to acupuncture that Hershman said she has seen is that patients do not know where to find a reputable acupuncturist.

Hershman recommended that patients first speak with their health care providers about acupuncture, as some cancer centers have acupuncturists on staff. Additionally, the Society for Integrative Oncology has a resource where patients can search for acupuncturists based on their zip code, according to Hershman.

“Reaching out to cancer centers to see if they’re affiliated with practices that may be familiar with (patients with) cancer is another approach,” Hershman said. “At the end of the day, like all fee-for-service activities — including finding a health care provider — it becomes word of mouth.”

Keep an Open Mind

Hershman noted that patients may be tempted to shy away from acupuncture if they dislike needles — especially as cancer care already involves blood draws, infusions and the like. However, Hershman said that the needles used in acupuncture are extremely thin, and that most patients do not even feel their insertion.

“I think patients should be open to at least trying it. You need to do several sessions for it to work,” Hershman said. “Given the potential benefits, and given the limited risks, it’s worthwhile being open-minded to different approaches that can improve health, wellbeing and quality of life.”

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