Acupuncture can help radiotherapy patients

An uncomfortable and unpleasant side effect of radiotherapy for patients being treated for head and neck cancer can be xerostomia; a severely dry mouth. A new study in Texas at the M.D.Anderson Cancer Center has proved that twice weekly acupuncture treatments can help relieve this debilitating side effect.

People who have cancers of the head and neck typically receive large cumulative doses of radiation which affect the salivary glands, so that they are then not able to produce adequate amounts of saliva to lubricate the mouth and this is when xerostomia develops. This is not a trivial matter, as symptoms can include an altered ability to taste, dental decay, infections of the tissues of the mouth, and difficulty with speaking, eating and swallowing.

Suggested aids are things like chewing gum or lozenges to encourage saliva production, but these can only bring very temporary short-term relief. The most commonly prescribed medication, pilocarpine, has short-lived benefits and side effects including sweating, stomach upset, runny nose, flushing, chills, dizziness, weakness, and frequent urination. This drug may also affect vision, especially at night.

This pilot study was set up to see if acupuncture could reverse this, and although it is frequently used to manage pain and restore health it had never been tried for this particular condition. The patients in the study had xerostomia and had completed radiotherapy at least four weeks earlier. They were given two acupuncture treatments each week for four weeks and the acupuncture points used in the treatment were located on the ears, chin, index finger, forearm and lateral surface of the leg. All patients were tested for saliva flow and asked to complete self-assessments and questionnaires related to their symptoms and quality of life before the first treatment, after completion of four weeks of acupuncture, and again four weeks later.

The twice weekly acupuncture treatments produced highly statistically significant improvements in symptoms and a quality-of-life assessment conducted at weeks five and eight showed significant improvements over quality-of-life scores recorded at the outset of the study. Further studies are underway at Fudan University Cancer Hospital in Shanghai, China, to see if having acupuncture treatments on the same day as the radiotherapy will produce the same results.

If you know anyone who is suffering from this condition, do share this article with them and suggest they seek a qualified acupuncturist if they wish to try it for themselves.