Making a Point

CURE, Winter 2010, Volume 9, Issue 4

Acupuncture reduces pain and dry mouth in head and neck cancer patients.

Acupuncture reduces pain, dysfunction and dry mouth in head and neck cancer patients, a study has shown. This study, recently reported in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, compared acupuncture to usual care in the treatment of these side effects.

The surgical removal of lymph nodes and tissue in the neck, or neck dissection, and radiation therapy are common head and neck cancer treatments. This surgery, as well as radiation therapy to the head and neck region, can result in pain, neck and shoulder dysfunction, and dry mouth due to lack of saliva.

In this study, researchers evaluated 58 patients with moderate to severe pain and dysfunction from neck dissection and radiation. About half of the patients were assigned to acupuncture once a week. The other half received usual care, which consisted of physical therapy, pain medication and anti-inflammatory drugs, or all three. After four weeks of therapy, acupuncture reduced the side effects as well as severe dry mouth (xerostomia) in patients receiving the intervention.

Barrie R. Cassileth, PhD, lead researcher and chief of integrative medicine service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, says the benefits of acupuncture on side effects, such as xerostomia, are several. “One, there are no other treatments for these [side effects]; two, acupuncture is an inexpensive, simple, no-side-effects intervention; and three, it works,” she says.

Study researchers noted that these results were consistent with previous studies demonstrating the benefits of acupuncture on pain and dry mouth.

“Acupuncture does not cure cancer; it does not treat cancer; but it does manage many different side effects of cancer treatment,” Cassileth says. Sloan-Kettering has several studies under way that examine whether acupuncture could minimize other side effects, including lymphedema.