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Acupuncture is an ancient treatment that began in China and is now practiced throughout the world. It is a type of body-based and energy therapy. In the U.S., it has been used for nearly 200 years, though formal research of acupuncture only began in 1976.

Acupuncture typically involves inserting very thin needles, much slimmer than those used to draw blood, in specific points on the body. People sometimes see an acupuncturist about long-term pain that develops on its own or results from a disease or condition.

In breast cancer, acupuncture has been studied as a way to manage symptoms and treatment side effects, including

Acupuncture has also been shown to improve symptoms of dry mouth caused by radiation for all types of cancers.

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How acupuncture helps

People who practice acupuncture believe the body contains a system of meridians, or paths, that qi (pronounced “chee”) travel through, although science has not proved its existence. When qi is blocked, it is thought to affect spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical health. Inserting needles into these paths on your body may ease symptoms by releasing the body’s natural painkillers and stress relievers. Acupuncture shows promise in treating pain, fatigue, and nausea and vomiting caused by breast cancer treatment.

During an acupuncture session, a licensed practitioner inserts thin metal needles into the skin at acupoints, also called acupuncture points, and at varying depths. Some practitioners simply put pressure on your skin without a needle. This is called acupressure. Both approaches help release blocked qi.

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Safety of acupuncture

Most people don’t feel pain during an acupuncture session, and there are few side effects. But if you have low platelet levels, a low white blood cell count or take blood thinners, you should be cautious because of the risk of bruising or bleeding from acupuncture needles. Acupressure may be a better option in those situations.

It’s important to find a licensed, experienced practitioner who follows state laws. More than 40 states require a license to practice, but requirements vary by state. The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) has a searchable database of certified acupuncturists.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires acupuncturists to use sterile, non-toxic, single-use needles. This is very important because a variety of treatments for breast cancer affect your body’s ability to fight infection.

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Other types of acupuncture

  • In electroacupuncture, needles are put into the skin in the same way as traditional acupuncture. Once in place, a very weak flow of electricity is sent through the needles to stimulate nerve tissue. Electroacupuncture may help reduce chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting, as well as certain pain conditions. Be cautious with electroacupuncture if you have electrical medical devices inside you, such as a pacemaker. The electrical activity may disrupt their function.
  • Acupressure, sometimes called shiatsu (pronounced “she-ot-soo”), follows the principles of qi and acupoints used in traditional acupuncture. Instead of using needles to stimulate the paths, practitioners use their hands and fingers to place pressure on them.
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Cost of acupuncture

The cost of many complementary and integrative therapies varies based on rates set by the practitioner, where you live, and whether or not health insurance covers the service. There is no standard for whether acupuncture is covered by health insurance. Some health insurance plans help pay for acupuncture and other complementary therapies if a doctor recommends them to treat side effects. Contact your insurance provider so that a plan representative can help you understand your benefits.

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Living Beyond Breast Cancer is a national nonprofit organization that seeks to create a world that understands there is more than one way to have breast cancer. To fulfill its mission of providing trusted information and a community of support to those impacted by the disease, Living Beyond Breast Cancer offers on-demand emotional, practical, and evidence-based content. For over 30 years, the organization has remained committed to creating a culture of acceptance — where sharing the diversity of the lived experience of breast cancer fosters self-advocacy and hope. For more information, learn more about our programs and services.

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