Carolyn Vachani, RN, MSN, AOCN
Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: November 27, 2007
Patients should inquire about cost per treatment and number of treatments prior to beginning therapy. Currently, Medicare and Medicaid do not reimburse for acupuncture treatments, but some private insurers do cover all or part of the cost. Patients should call their insurer to determine coverage for their particular condition, as some may cover acupuncture for certain conditions, but not others.
Acupuncture has not been shown to be an effective treatment for the cancer itself, but has been primarily used and studied in symptom relief, including nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy, pain, hot flashes due to hormone therapy and, more recently, joint pains related to aromatase inhibitors. Studies have shown promising results in these areas. While many feel randomized clinical trials are important to prove efficacy, it is difficult to dismiss a therapy that has been used for thousands of years because appropriate trials have yet to be conducted. Acupuncture may be a useful therapy alone or in conjunction with standard therapies. Read more about the research that has been conducted at the National Cancer Institute.
Acupuncture is generally safe when performed by a trained acupuncturist, but there are a few concerns specific to cancer care. Patients with low white blood cell counts (or neutropenia) should use caution due to their increased risk of infection. Sterile, single use needles should be used and the skin cleaned with alcohol prior to their insertion. Despite the theoretical concern of infection, acupuncture practitioners feel that acupuncture can boost immune function and may be of benefit to immune compromised patients.
Patients with low platelet counts (thrombocytopenia) are at increased risk for bleeding and bruising and therefore should not undergo acupuncture while their platelet counts are low. There is also a concern of inserting needles into the tumor. It is recommended that this is not done to prevent spreading of the tumor, although this has not been proven to occur with acupuncture.
Other possible complications include: fainting, nausea and exacerbation of pain. More serious complications, such as lung puncture (pneumothorax), are rare in experienced hands, and studies have found no major difference in the rates of complications based on who was performing the therapy (professional acupuncturist, trained physician, or physiotherapist).