This ancient therapy originating in China involves inserting very thin needles into the body surface at specific points; it is effective in treating many cancer symptoms and side effects.

How can acupuncture help me? What the research says

We summarize the clinical evidence for each medical benefit here. We begin with our assessment of the strength of evidence within each category, followed by a brief summary of individual studies or reviews of several studies. In assessing the strength of evidence, we consider the study design, number of participants, and the size of the treatment effect (how much outcomes changed with treatment).

Learn more about how we research and rate therapies and practices.

Optimizing your body terrain

Does acupuncture promote an environment within your body that is less supportive of cancer development, growth, or spread? We present the evidence.

Hormone imbalance

Preliminary evidencesignificant effects in small or poorly designed clinical studies OR conflicting results in adequate studies but a preponderance of evidence of an effect (this is the CancerChoices definition; other researchers and studies may define this differently) of better hormone balance during chemotherapy among people with gastrointestinal cancer with cachexiaweakness and wasting of the body due to severe chronic illness treated with acupuncture

Immune function

Preliminary evidence of increased markers of immune function without regard to treatment phase among people treated with acupuncture and moxibustion

Modest evidencesignificant effects in at least three small but well-designed randomized controlled trials (RCTs), or one or more well-designed, mid-sized clinical studies of reasonably good quality (RCTs or observational studies), or several small studies aggregated into a meta-analysis (this is the CancerChoices definition; other researchers and studies may define this differently) of better markers of immune function during cancer treatment among people with lung cancer treated with acupoint stimulation

No evidence of effectsoverall, one or more studies did not demonstrate that a treatment or intervention led to an expected outcome; this does not always mean that there is no effect in clinical practice, but that the studies may have been underpowered (too few participants) or poorly designed. Larger, well-designed studies provide more confidence in making assessments. on immune function during hormone therapy among people with breast cancer treated with acupuncture in a combined analysis of studies

Preliminary evidence of better immune function after surgery among people treated with warm needle acupuncture and moxibustion

Inflammation

Insufficient evidencepreclinical evidence only OR clinical studies with such poor or unclear methodology that no conclusion can be drawn OR conflicting findings across clinical studies with no preponderance of evidence in one direction; conflicting evidence occurs when studies find conflicting effects (positive effect vs no effect or negative effect) with the same treatment and the same general study population (same cancer type, for example) (this is the CancerChoices definition; other researchers and studies may define this differently) of effects on inflammation among people with cancer-related depression taking sertraline hydrochloride after 6 weeks of acupuncture without regard to treatment phase

Preliminary evidence of a higher marker of inflammatory response during chemotherapy among people with cachexia treated with acupuncture

No evidence of an effect on inflammation during hormone therapy among people treated with acupuncture in a combined analysis of studies

Preliminary evidence of lower inflammation after radical resection of colorectal cancer among people treated with warm needle acupuncture and moxibustion

Oxidation

Preliminary evidence of less disruption to antioxidanta molecule that can cause a free radical molecule to stabilize and become less reactive; an antioxidant can reduce harmful oxidation from free radicals levels during general anesthesia for radical surgery among people with intestinal cancer treated with acupuncture

Your microbiome

Preliminary evidence of better intestinal bacteria after colorectal resection surgery among people with colorectal cancer treated with warm needle acupuncture and moxibustion

Managing side effects and promoting wellness

Is acupuncture linked to fewer or less severe side effects or symptoms? Is it linked to less toxicity from cancer treatment? Does it support your quality of life or promote general well-being? We present the evidence.

Anxiety

Modest evidencesignificant effects in at least three small but well-designed randomized controlled trials (RCTs), or one or more well-designed, mid-sized clinical studies of reasonably good quality (RCTs or observational studies), or several small studies aggregated into a meta-analysis (this is the CancerChoices definition; other researchers and studies may define this differently) of less anxiety before surgery among people treated with acupuncture

Preliminary evidencesignificant effects in small or poorly designed clinical studies OR conflicting results in adequate studies but a preponderance of evidence of an effect (this is the CancerChoices definition; other researchers and studies may define this differently) of less anxiety or worry, irritation, and tenseness during or after chemotherapy among people treated with acupuncture

No evidence of additional benefitoverall, one or more studies did not demonstrate that a treatment or intervention led to an expected outcome; this does not always mean that there is no effect in clinical practice, but that the studies may have been underpowered (too few participants) or poorly designed. Larger, well-designed studies provide more confidence in making assessments. to massage therapy for anxiety during reconstructive surgery among people with breast cancer treated with acupuncture in a preliminary study

Blood-related side effects

Modest evidence of less therapy-induced bone marrow suppression during cancer treatment among people with lung cancer treated with acupuncture

Preliminary evidence of better white blood cell counts after radical resection of colorectal cancer among people treated with warm-needle acupuncture and moxibustion

Body composition and cachexia

Weak evidenceone or more case studies, supported by animal evidence OR small treatment effects of limited clinical significance OR studies with no controls OR weak trends of effects (this is the CancerChoices definition; other researchers and studies may define this differently) of weight gain and less muscle loss during chemotherapy among people with gastrointestinal cancer treated with acupuncture

Breathlessness

Modest evidence of less breathlessness among people with advanced diseases including cancer treated with acupuncture

Changes in appetite

Weak evidence of better appetite among people with gastrointestinal cancer treated with acupuncture

Cognitive difficulties

Preliminary evidence of better cognitive function through less sleep disturbance among people with cancer treated with acupuncture

Depression or mood disturbance

No evidence of an effectoverall, one or more studies did not demonstrate that a treatment or intervention led to an expected outcome; this does not always mean that there is no effect in clinical practice, but that the studies may have been underpowered (too few participants) or poorly designed. Larger, well-designed studies provide more confidence in making assessments. on mood distress among people with cancer treated with acupuncture in combined analysis of studies

Preliminary evidence of less depression among people with cancer treated with acupuncture

No evidence of additional benefit to massage therapy for mood during autologous tissue breast reconstruction among people treated with acupuncture in a preliminary study

Fatigue

Modest evidence of less cancer-related fatigue without regard to treatment phase among people treated with acupuncture

Good evidencesignificant effects in one large or several mid-sized and well-designed clinical studies (randomized controlled trials (RCTs) with an appropriate placebo or other strong comparison control or observational studies that control for confounds) (this is the CancerChoices definition; other researchers and studies may define this differently) of less fatigue during or after cancer treatment among people treated with acupuncture

No evidence of additional benefit to massage therapy for fatigue during autologous tissue breast reconstruction among people treated with acupuncture in a preliminary study

Gastrointestinal symptoms, including nausea and vomiting

Preliminary evidence of less nausea and vomiting among people treated with acupuncture without regard to treatment phase

Modest evidence of less chemotherapy-induced diarrhea or nausea and vomiting among people treated with acupuncture

No evidence of an effect on gastrointestinal symptoms among people treated with acupuncture in a combined analysis of studies

Preliminary evidence of quicker return of bowel function and less nausea and vomiting after colorectal cancer surgery among people treated with acupuncture

No evidence of additional benefit to massage therapy for nausea during autologous tissue breast reconstruction among people treated with acupuncture in a preliminary study

Hot flashes

Preliminary (conflicting) evidence of fewer hot flashes without regard to treatment phase among people with cancer, mostly with breast cancer, treated with acupuncture

Good evidence of fewer hot flashes during cancer treatment, including hormone therapy, among people with breast cancer treated with acupuncture

Weak evidence of fewer hot flashes after treatment among people with breast cancer treated with acupuncture

Modest evidence of fewer adverse effects among people treated with acupuncture compared to non-hormonal medication for hot flashes

Lymphedema

Weak evidence of fewer symptoms of cancer-related lymphedemaswelling caused by a blockage in the lymphatic system, most commonly caused by lymph node removal or damage due to cancer treatment among people treated with acupuncture

Neurological symptoms

Good evidence of fewer symptoms and pain related to chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathydamage to the peripheral nerves outside the brain and spinal cord among people treated with acupuncture

Oral symptoms

Modest evidence of less effect at least three small but well-designed RCTs, or one or more well-designed, mid-sized clinical studies of reasonably good quality (RCTs or observational studies), or several small studies aggregated into a meta-analysis found less effect (this is the CancerChoices definition; other researchers and studies may define this differently) than cholinergic agonists in relieving symptoms of dry mouth among people treated with acupuncture

Preliminary evidence of fewer dry mouth symptoms among people treated with acupuncture compared to sham acupuncture or controls

Pain

Good evidence of less cancer-related pain without regard to treatment phase among people treated with acupuncture, whether alone or in addition to conventional pain treatments

Preliminary evidence of fewer headaches during or after chemotherapy among people with breast cancer treated with acupuncture

Good evidence of less pain related to surgery among people with cancer treated with acupuncture

Modest evidence of less pain related to aromatase inhibitors among people treated with acupuncture

No evidence of an effect on pain during chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or hormone therapy among people treated with acupuncture in combined analyses of studies

Quality of life and physical function

Modest evidence of better quality of life and physical function without regard to treatment phase among people treated with acupuncture

Modest evidence of better physical performance and quality of life during conventional treatment among people treated with acupuncture

Preliminary evidence of better function during chemotherapy after colon cancer surgery among people treated with acupuncture

Good evidence of less stiffness but no evidence of an effect on quality of life during hormone therapy among people treated with acupuncture

Modest evidence of better quality of life among people with advanced disease treated with acupuncture

Sleep disruption

Modest evidence of less sleep disturbance without regard to treatment phase among people treated with acupuncture

Weak evidence of less sleep disturbance during chemotherapy among people treated with acupuncture

Stress

Weak evidence of less stress without regard to treatment phase among people with cancer treated with acupuncture

No evidence of additional benefit to massage therapy for stress during autologous tissue breast reconstruction among people treated with acupuncture in a preliminary study

Other side effects and symptoms

Preliminary evidence of shorter hospital stays after surgery for colorectal cancer among people treated with acupuncture

Weak evidence of less ringing in ears (tinnitus) among people with breast cancer during or after chemotherapy

Acupuncture as part of combination therapies

Modest evidence of less breast cancer-related lymphedema among people treated with acupuncture combined with drugs or functional exercise

Preliminary evidence of less pain among people with multiple myeloma treated with acupuncture combined with methylcobalamin

Preliminary evidence of shorter hospital stays after open or laparoscopic resection for colorectal cancer among people treated with simo decoction and acupuncture

Side effects and symptoms not specific to cancer

Good evidence of comparable effects on hot flashes among people treated with acupuncture compared to non-hormonal drugs

Modest evidence of higher frequency of hot flashes among people treated with acupuncture compared to hormonal therapy

Preliminary evidence of less clinical depression among people treated with acupuncture

Resources related to evidence

Keep reading about acupuncture

Author

Nancy Hepp, MS

Lead Researcher and Program Manager
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Ms. Hepp is a researcher and communicator who has been writing and editing educational content on varied health topics for more than 20 years. She serves as lead researcher, program manager, and writer for CancerChoices. Her graduate work in research and cognitive psychology, her master’s degree in instructional design, and her certificate in web design have all guided her in writing and presenting information for a wide variety of audiences and uses. Nancy’s service as faculty development coordinator in the Department of Family Medicine at Wright State University also provided experience in medical research, plus insights into medical education and medical care from the professional’s perspective.

Nancy Hepp, MS Lead Researcher and Program Manager

Reviewers

Dr. Ryan is a research associate for CancerChoices. She is a licensed and board certified naturopathic physician and acupuncturist in Oregon. Dr. Ryan is the founder of Gentle Natural Wellness, a clinic specializing in bridging classical Chinese medicine with naturopathic medicine to provide individualized, compassionate care for people in the community. A Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine and Master of Science in Oriental Medicine with honors from the National University of Natural Medicine, research in medical anthropology at the University of Hawai’i and George Mason University, language and culture programs at Obirin University (Tokyo) and Sogang University (Seoul), and studies of Chinese herbal medicine and qigong in China have provided a diverse background that has helped form a foundation for her community health and healing path.

Emily Ryan, ND, MSOM, LAc Research Associate

Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS

Senior Clinical Consultant
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Laura Pole is senior clinical consultant for CancerChoices. Laura is an oncology clinical nurse specialist who has been providing integrative oncology clinical care, navigation, consultation, and education services for over 40 years. She is the co-creator and co-coordinator of the Integrative Oncology Navigation Training at Smith Center for Healing and the Arts in Washington, DC. Laura also manages the “Media Watch Cancer News That You Can Use” listserv for Smith Center/Commonweal. In her role as a palliative care educator and consultant, Laura has served as statewide Respecting Choices Faculty for the Virginia POST (Physician Orders for Scope of Treatment) Collaborative as well as provided statewide professional education on palliative and end-of-life care for the Virginia Association for Hospices and Palliative Care.

For CancerChoices, Laura curates content and research, networks with clinical and organizational partners, brings awareness and education of integrative oncology at professional and patient conferences and programs, and translates research into information relevant to the patient experience as well as clinical practice.

Laura sees her work with CancerChoices as a perfect alignment of all her passions, knowledge and skills in integrative oncology care. She is honored to serve you.

Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS Senior Clinical Consultant

Janet Spitzer, MD

Integrative physician
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Dr. Spitzer is a family physician and cancer survivor. She received her medical degree from Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine and specializes in complementary and integrative medicine.

Janet Spitzer, MD Integrative physician

Last update: November 3, 2022

Last full literature review: February 2022

CancerChoices provides information about integrative in cancer care, a patient-centered approach combining the best of conventional care, self care and evidence-informed complementary care in an integrated plan cancer care. We review complementaryin cancer care, complementary care involves the use of therapies intended to enhance or add to standard conventional treatments; examples include supplements, mind-body approaches such as yoga or psychosocial therapy, and acupuncture therapies and self-care lifestyle actions and behaviors that may impact cancer outcomes; examples include eating health-promoting foods, limiting alcohol, increasing physical activity, and managing stress practices to help patients and professionals explore and integrate the best combination of conventionalthe cancer care offered by conventionally trained physicians and most hospitals; examples are chemotherapy, surgery, and radiotherapy and complementary therapies and practices for each person.

Our staff have no financial conflicts of interest to declare. We receive no funds from any manufacturers or retailers gaining financial profit by promoting or discouraging therapies mentioned on this site.

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