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VCU Massey Cancer Center


Myths and facts: acupuncture

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine technique where trained practitioners stimulate certain points on the body, usually by inserting needles through the skin (NCCIH, 2016). AcuTake, an online information resource for acupuncture and acupressure, explains that the idea behind acupuncture is your body already has within it the tools, or energy, to help you get well, and certain techniques can rearrange energy to restore balance. Cancer patients may consider acupuncture for pain, chemotherapy related nausea, fatigue, anxiety and other healing properties related directly to their specific cancer.

Is acupuncture safe?

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health reports that acupuncture is generally considered safe when performed by an experienced, well-trained practitioner using sterile needles. Improperly performed acupuncture can cause serious side effects like infection, the puncturing of organs, collapsed lungs, and damage to the central nervous system. 

What does the research say?

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health reports the following:

  • Results from a number of studies suggest that acupuncture may help ease types of pain that are often chronic, such as lower back pain, neck pain, and osteoarthritis/knee pain. It also may help reduce the frequency of tension headaches and prevent migraine headaches. Therefore, acupuncture appears to be a reasonable option for people with chronic pain to consider. 
  • The effects of acupuncture on the brain and body and how best to measure those effects are only beginning to be understood. Current evidence suggests that many factors—like expectation and belief—unrelated to acupuncture needling may play important roles in the beneficial effects of acupuncture on pain.
  • Results of a systematic review that combined data from 11 clinical trials with more than 1,200 participants suggested that acupuncture (and acupuncture point stimulation) may help with certain symptoms associated with cancer treatments.
  • Acupuncture has been promoted as a smoking cessation treatment since the 1970s, but research has not shown that it helps people quit the habit.

Are there safety concerns?

If you use a certified acupuncturist who is using sterile needles, there are relatively few safety concerns or side effects anticipated with acupuncture. When not delivered properly, acupuncture can cause serious adverse effects, including infections, punctured organs, collapsed lungs, and injury to the central nervous system.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates acupuncture needles as medical devices for use by licensed practitioners and requires that needles be manufactured and labeled according to certain standards. For example, the FDA requires that needles be sterile, nontoxic, and labeled for single use by qualified practitioners only.

Do acupuncture needles hurt?

In an article in the Huffington Post (2013), it was reported that one of the most common reasons for not trying acupuncture is fear of the needles hurting. However, the needles are generally ultra thin. There is actually a term for the sensation associated with the needle, “de qi,” and it correlates with the expectation of pain. The needle can but should not feel sharp. One way to think of the sensation is that it is confirmation that the needle has accessed the energetic material and has started the rearranging of energy. A sharp or painful feeling is to occasionally be expected but the acupuncturist can readjust the needle to relieve the pain or pressure, so it is important to communicate how it feels as the needles are inserted. The most common sensations are described as “heavy,” “achy,” “electric,” “tingly” and “warm.”

So, expect to have a sensation but do not tolerate a painful response from your body. Immediately tell the acupuncturist what you are feeling and make sure the experience isn’t uncomfortable or painful for you. For those who are just flat out afraid of needles, close your eyes! Don’t watch and the anticipatory pain can be somewhat avoided. But, in the end, for those with a strong fear of needles, acupuncture may not be a comfortable therapy to try.

How do you find a certified acupuncturist?

The National Certification Commission of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine has a directory for certified acupuncturists. Visit and click on Find a Practitioner. There are about 14 in the greater Richmond area and each have their own specialties, so call those nearest to you and ask questions about their experience with cancer patients and their safety practices. Be your own advocate!


Written by: Massey Communications Office

Posted on: November 28, 2016

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