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While it is an increasingly popular national trend, the practice of acupuncture is anything but new. A growing body of clinical research shows that acupuncture can help relieve some of the symptoms of breast cancer and side effects of cancer treatment.

Practiced for thousands of years in China and other Asian countries, acupuncture has also been used in America for about 200 years. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the acupuncture needle as a medical device 20 years ago.

Chinese practitioners have mapped out 20 meridians through which vital energy flows.  This energy is called "qi" (pronounced "chee").  These meridians can become blocked, interrupting the body’s normal functions.  The goal of acupuncture is to open certain points on these pathways and release blocked qi.

In acupuncture, sterile, hair-thin needles are inserted into specific points on the skin – called "acupuncture points" – and then gently moved. Research suggests that acupuncture stimulates the nervous system to release natural painkillers and immune system cells, which then travel to weakened areas of the body and relieve symptoms.

Studies show that, for many patients, acupuncture either relieves symptoms or keeps them from getting worse. In breast cancer treatment, acupuncture is being used to control symptoms that include pain, fatigue, nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy, weight loss, anxiety, depression, insomnia, poor appetite, dry mouth, hot flashes, nerve problems, constipation and gastrointestinal issues that can follow surgery.

In the most thorough study of acupuncture with breast cancer patients, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2000, 104 women undergoing high-dose chemotherapy were given traditional anti-nausea medication. In addition to taking the medication, the women were randomly chosen to receive five days of electroacupuncture (acupuncture in which needles are stimulated with a mild electrical current), acupuncture without an electrical current, or no acupuncture. The women who had acupuncture had significantly fewer nausea episodes than those who did not.

Although there have been few complications reported from using acupuncture, because chemotherapy and radiation therapy weaken the body's immune system, a strict clean needle method must be used when acupuncture treatment is given to breast cancer patients. It is important to seek treatment from a qualified acupuncture practitioner who uses a new set of disposable (single-use) needles for each patient. Because of the risk of bleeding, acupuncture should not be received by people who have bleeding disorders, have low white blood cell counts or who take blood thinners.

Current research suggests that acupuncture is a safe and effective therapy to manage breast cancer and treatment related symptoms, while giving patients the ability to actively participate in their own care plan. 

The acupuncture/Traditional Chinese Medicine department at First Health is headed by Dr. Yu Zhu, L.Ac., O.M.D. (MD China).  With more than 30 years of medical experience, combined with extensive training as a China-licensed medical physician specializing in acupuncture and herbs, Dr. Zhu has helped hundreds of cancer patients reduce or eliminate the side effects of cancer treatments.