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
- joint pain caused by aromatase inhibitors
- general pain
- chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting
- anxiety and depression
- hot flashes
Acupuncture has also been shown to improve symptoms of dry mouth caused by radiation for all types of cancers.
People who practice acupuncture believe the body contains a system of meridians, or paths, that qi (pronounced “chee”) travel through, although science has not proven 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, 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.
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 on its website.
- 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. You should be cautious with the use of 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.
The cost of many complementary therapies will vary based on rates set by the practitioner, where you live and whether or not your health insurance covers the service. There is no standard for whether acupuncture is covered by health insurance. Sometimes, insurance may help pay for acupuncture, as well as other complementary therapies, if a doctor recommends it to treat side effects. Contact your insurance provider so that a plan representative can help you understand your benefits.