Acupuncture Reduces Cancer Pain and Painkiller Use, Study Finds

January 10, 2020

A recent study has found that real acupuncture can not only reduce a patient's cancer pain from various types of cancer, but also reduce their painkiller use.

Acupuncture and acupressure are significantly associated with reduced cancer pain and the use of painkillers, according to study findings published in JAMA Oncology. However, the researchers noted that additional research is needed to determine the benefit for specific cancer types and how best to integrate these practices into clinical care to reduce opioid use.

More than 70% of patients with cancer experience pain related to their disease and the growing problems surrounding the use and prescription of opioids in the United States has the American Society for Clinical Oncology and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network calling for non-pharmacological pain interventions such as acupuncture. But the research on the efficacy of these interventions has been largely inconsistent, the researchers explained.

To address this concern, they performed a systemic review of 17 randomized clinical trials that included 1,111 patients and a meta-analysis of 14 trials with 920 patients. All studies were conducted in the United States, China, Australia, Brazil, France and Korea.

In the systemic review of 1,111 people, 515 (46%) were in the experimental group, 575 (52%) were in the control group and 21 (2%) were in a trial that assessed the outcome of acupuncture using an open-label cross-over design. Nine of the 17 trials were sham-controlled, meaning some participants received placebo, or fake acupuncture. Six studies compared real acupuncture with sham acupuncture and seven compared the combination of acupuncture and acupressure with pain relief therapy or usual care.

Overall, when compared with sham, real acupuncture was associated with reduced pain intensity. Additionally, when acupuncture or acupressure were combined with pain relief therapy, six trials found an association with reducing the intensity of pain. Two trials found that these interventions led to a reduced use of opioids for pain management. And while the systemic review found acupuncture to be associated with significant pain reduction, the meta-analysis found it to be associated with greater pain reduction when compared with sham control, which differs from previous review findings.

The side effects associated with acupuncture and acupressure were minor, the researchers noted and consisted primarily of skin and subcutaneous tissue disorder or slight pain at the application site. Six studies reported no side effects during the study period and no patients had to discontinue intervention because of side effects.

While this significant connection between acupuncture and/or acupressure and reduced cancer pain is promising, the researchers explained that the incorporation of acupuncture into pain management plans for patients with cancer remains a challenge. Patients may not always have the information or access they need to make informed decisions on whether to take advantage of these interventions. And although acupuncture and/or acupressure may sometimes be covered by insurance, the out of pocket cost to patients is often seen as a barrier to using these treatments.

The many different types of cancer pain, varied treatment methods and the multiple types of acupuncture and acupressure involved in the clinical trials that were analyzed create limitations, the researchers explained. However, the benefits seen in these studies suggest that more rigorous research into the connection between acupuncture/acupressure and cancer pain would be helpful for patients in search of non-pharmacological pain management therapies.


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