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Acupuncture May Aid Head and Neck Pains in Cancer Patients

Posted: June 2, 2008

Two of the more common and unpleasant side effects of treatment for head and neck cancer patients may be relieved by the ancient Chinese practice of acupuncture. A new study found significant reductions in both dry mouth and pain and shoulder dysfunction after neck dissection in patients receiving acupuncture.

"Although further studies are needed, this does support the potential role of acupuncture," said study author Dr. David Pfister, chief of the head and neck medical oncology service at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. He presented the findings Saturday at the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting in Chicago.

Neck dissection, or removal of the lymph nodes and surrounding tissue, is common in treating head and neck cancers. The dissection can be severe, involving removing of all the lymph nodes, the muscle involved in turning the head, a vein and a nerve which allows patients to lift their arms above their head.

"Side effects vary with the extent of the procedure," Pfister said. "Pain and shoulder dysfunction are common following a comprehensive neck resection. Although exercise and anti-inflammatory drugs are widely prescribed to address pain and dysfunction, efficacy is often disappointing or incomplete. Postoperative radiation is also frequently administered, leading to dry mouth, which further adds to the burden of symptoms."

In the study, 70 patients were randomized to receive weekly acupuncture sessions for four weeks or "usual care" (suggestions for physical therapy exercises and anti-inflammatory pain relievers).

Almost 40% of participants receiving acupuncture experienced improvements in both pain and mobility, compared with just 7% in the standard-care group.

There was also a notable decrease in dry mouth. "Five people in the acupuncture group had improvements as opposed to none in the usual-care arm," Pfister said.

More information
Visit the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine for more on this therapy.

HealthDay News, June 1, 2008