The Role of WMA Western Medical Acupuncture in the Treatment of Breast Cancer

With the growing scientific and clinical evidence into the mechanisms and benefits of Acupuncture, more and more Health care Providers are including Acupuncture as an integrated approach to their medical management. With the increased recognition of Acupuncture more patients with Breast Cancer are turning to Acupuncture to relieve some of their symptoms and reduce the side effects of the treatment as well as to improve their health and general wellbeing.

WMA Western Medical Acupuncture is based on recognized mechanisms of sensory neuromodulation and contemporary neurophysiology. The use of Acupuncture is most commonly associated in the treatment of pain but it is now accepted that Acupuncture has much broader applications and systemic interventions, and can be used to treat a variety of medical conditions other than pain. Acupuncture can benefit the central nervous system, the immune system, the endocrine system and the circulatory system. Acupuncture stimulates the body to produce endorphins and oxytocin, its own pain- and stress- relieving chemicals. It also stimulates the release of melatonin to promote sleep and stimulates serotonin in the body which encourages a sense of well-being.

Acupuncture has been shown to help relieve the side effects associated with chemotherapy treatment, namely –

  • fatigue
  • hot flashes
  • nausea and vomiting
  • general body pain.
  • vasomotor symptoms eg palpitations and dizziness, sweating
  • peripheral neuropathy eg tingling or altered sensation in the hands and feet
  • sleep disturbance
  • xerostomia (dry mouth)

A number of studies have shown Acupuncture to be useful in the treatment of AIMSS Aromatase Inhibitor Induced Musculoskeletal Syndrome, commonly experienced in the use of Aromatase Inhibitors, which are the most effective hormone therapy in the treatment of postmenopausal women with early stage breast cancer. The most common side effects are

pain, swelling and stiffness of the joints –  most commonly experienced in the hands and knees

decreased libido and vaginal dryness

fatigue and sleep disturbances

Lymphoedema is a condition commonly experienced during the treatment of Breast Cancer, and usually presents during or after Chemotherapy or Radiotherapy. It tends to be a chronic condition, slow to resolve and difficult to cure. The symptoms can range from a mild discomfort and tightness in the arm to extreme pain and swelling, numbness and loss of feeling.

Acupuncture can be helpful in relieving the symptoms caused by the impaired lymphatic system. Acupuncture can help improve the blood flow and the altered sensation, and can reduce the pain and swelling. In the presence of Lymphoedema there is a significant disruption to the autonomic system and research shows that Acupuncture decreases sympathetic nerve activity which will help correct this disruption.

Needling on the affected side in the presence of Lymphoedema is a contra indication but there is evidence that needling the opposite of the body can have some effect on the injured side.

Acupuncture involves the use of single use, pre-sterilised, disposable needles of varying widths and lengths, much finer than injection needles. They are supplied with guide tubes for easy insertion and there is no risk of anything touching the needle during the process. Acupuncture is a very safe procedure when carried out by fully qualified professionals.

Many studies have found EA Electro Acupuncture to have a stronger and more lasting effect in managing pain and systemic symptoms.  Similiar to TENS, the use of a high frequency in EA is beneficial for pain modulation. The use of a low frequency current has been shown to decrease sympathetic nerve activity, which is an issue in chronic conditions where the autonomic nervous system is involved. EA involves passing a current through the needles and most patients find it a very comfortable stimulation.

Acupuncture in the hands of competant trained practitioners can play a role in the treatment of the patient with Breast Cancer, whether it is to relieve the symptoms associated with the pathology or the side effects of the treatment, or for general wellbeing.

Should you wish to discuss Acupuncture please contact our special interest group on

Acupuncture Group SASP South African Society of Physiotherapy

Physiotherapists practicing Acupuncture

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