Acupuncture does not reduce nausea in radiotherapy patients

2 Oct 2007

New research has found acupuncture to be no more effective than a placebo in reducing radiotherapy induced nausea.

The study, conducted by a doctoral student at the University of Linköpig, Sweden, evaluated a sample of 215 patients with various types of cancer by giving them either acupuncture or a fake treatment with an identical looking and feeling needle that retracted into the handle on contact with the skin.

The treatment was given two or three times a week during the whole period of radiotherapy. Patients documented their nausea and vomiting in structured diaries and questionnaires, completed during and after the radiotherapy course.

It was found that 68% of those patients receiving acupuncture experienced nausea while 61% of the patients who received the fake treatment suffered nausea. The nausea lasted on average 19 days for those receiving acupuncture and 17 days for the fake group.

Speaking at the 14th European Cancer Conference, Anna Enblom said that “there was no statistically significant difference between the groups in the number of days with nausea or vomiting or in the intensity of the nausea, neither in the patients receiving radiotherapy alone, nor in those receiving a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy”.

“Our study may indicate that attitudes and expectations play a major role in the experience of the effect of the treatment,” she added.

Acupuncture, believed to work by stimulating the circulation and activating nerves that prompt the release of important substances from the brain such as endorphins, is often used to treat cancer therapy side effects such as pain and nausea; despite inconclusive evidence that it has any effect.

“It has proven efficacy in pain related to, for example, osteoarthritis, but the evidence for its effect in cancer patients is lacking,” Enblom said. “In this study, the question of whether invasive acupuncture is more effective than non-penetrating placebo needles for the reduction of radiotherapy-related nausea is answered.”

She also compared the findings to older data from the same institute which found that under the same radiotherapy conditions, with no acupuncture or fake treatment, 63% of patients suffered nausea. In the new trial only 37% (of those that had acupuncture), and 31% (of those that had the fake treatment) suffered nausea. This disparity shows the formidable nature of the placebo effect.

It is also noticeable that in both new groups, the majority thought the treatment was effective and wanted to continue it. While Enblom acknowledged this compelling placebo effect, she concluded by insisting that: “It is not recommended to give acupuncture if it produces pain or harm.”