Lili He, of the Carroll Acupuncture Clinic in Eldersburg, sees clients for management of the effects of cancer treatment and pain.
Specifically related to radiation and chemotherapy treatment, she said acupuncture is helpful for fatigue, hot flashes, nausea, neuropathy, digestive problems and xerostomia — widely known as dry mouth that can come as a result of radiation treatment.
In general at the clinic, “Most of the patients that come in, they have pain,” she said.
She works with a man whose dry mouth meant he had to drink water in order to eat because his body wasn’t producing adequate saliva. With acupuncture, the saliva production returned, He said.
“It goes on and off, on and off, but eventually after a couple months you get 100 percent.”
The patient told her that of all those in a focus group with similar symptoms, he was the only one who no longer needed water to eat, she said.
When a person is starting acupuncture at her clinic, the first visit involves a consultation that is not just cancer-related, but a comprehensive look at the patient’s health.
“The more data I have, the better,” she said.
And the earlier the better is her advice for starting acupuncture. Regular visits are also important. He said she refers patients to other acupuncturists if the distance to her clinic would discourage a person from coming for regular sessions.
When asked if there are patients for whom acupuncture is not helpful, she said, “I would say after three to five visits, if they feel nothing, they should either go other places or seek other sources. I will let them know I cannot help them. But most patients responded.”
Acupuncture is based in ancient Chinese medicine, stimulating specific points of the body, mostly commonly using thin metal needles.
In the United States, acupuncture is considered complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, based in Bethesda, reports that exploration into acupuncture’s pain-relieving effects is ongoing. “Although millions of Americans use acupuncture each year, often for chronic pain, there has been considerable controversy surrounding its value as a therapy and whether it is anything more than placebo.”
According to an article in the journal Oncology focused on acupuncture for cancer pain management specifically, “The small samples sizes, inadequate blinding descriptions, heterogeneous cancer diagnoses, and different study methodologies do not allow for a definitive conclusion. At this juncture, it is fair to say that preliminary evidence suggests acupuncture may be effective for certain kinds of cancer pain in some patients.”
They could not recommend acupuncture as part of standard care for the management of pain directly related to cancer.
The National Cancer Institute includes a section about acupuncture in its writing about CAM therapies and reports that “the strongest evidence for acupuncture has come from clinical trials on the use of acupuncture to relieve nausea and vomiting.”
They define the difference between a “complementary” treatment used alongside conventional anti-cancer treatments and an “alternative” treatment used in place of conventional medicine.
In July, the New York Times reported on a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that stated that use of complimentary medicine was “associated with refusal of conventional cancer treatment,” according to the findings.
This risk went away when CAM treatments were used alongside conventional medicine and not as a replacement of it.
“This survival difference could be mediated by adherence to all recommended conventional cancer therapies,” according to the study.
Brian Jackson, a licensed acupuncturist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine Center for Integrative Medicine works with those who experience symptoms resulting from radiation and chemotherapy.
“Nausea, reduced appetite, poor sleep; In the initial phases of treatment, this is primarily what we’re focusing on,” he said.
Cancer patients may be referred to the center by their nurse practitioner or oncologist, or seek out acupuncture on their own. Some undergo acupuncture while they are undergoing chemotherapy and radiation therapy and others seek it out for symptoms like nephropathy that can last for years afterward.
Jackson said that patients currently undergoing cancer treatment should consult with their doctor and their acupuncturist.
People whose immune systems have been suppressed as part of treatment, for example, may not be good candidates for acupuncture.
“You need an acupuncturist who is informed and has worked with that before if you’re actively going through treatment,” he said.
Acupuncturists in Maryland are licensed by the Maryland Department of Health’s Maryland Board of Acupuncture.