Acupuncture in cancer study reignites debate about controversial technique

Dec 11, 2017

By Jo Marchant

One of the largest-ever clinical trials into whether acupuncture can relieve pain in cancer patients has reignited a debate over the role of this contested technique in cancer care.

Oncologists who conducted a trial of real and sham acupuncture in 226 women at 11 different cancer centres across the United States say their results — presented on 7 December at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium in Texas — conclude that the treatment significantly reduces pain in women receiving hormone therapy for breast cancer. They suggest it could help patients stick to life-saving cancer treatments, potentially improving survival rates. But sceptics say it is almost impossible to conduct completely rigorous double-blinded trials of acupuncture.

Interest in acupuncture has grown because of concerns over the use of opioid-based pain-relief drugs, which can have nasty side effects and are extremely addictive. Many cancer centres in the United States therefore offer complementary therapies for pain relief. Almost 90% of US National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centres suggest that patients try acupuncture, and just over 70% offer it as a treatment for side effects1. That horrifies sceptics such as Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine and founder of the blog Science-Based Medicine. Acupuncture has no scientific basis, he says; recommending it is “telling patients that magic works”. 

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One comment on “Acupuncture in cancer study reignites debate about controversial technique”

  • it is “telling patients that magic works”.

    No it’s not. Just because we don’t understand (yet) how something works is no reason, on it’s own, to call it magic. History is full of examples where the science of the day could find no underlying mechanism for a phenomenon. An example is the traditional Chinese practice of treating dysentery with human faeces; so called “yellow soup”. A few decades ago science had no explanation for how this works and most doctors would have dismissed eating poo as nonsense. Now that we understand more about the human microbiome and the important role it plays in our health we understand that transplanting gut bacteria from a healthy person to a sick one can indeed be used to treat bacterial infections of the intestinal tract.

    The gold standard in comparison trials is the double-blind study. If this shows a statistically significant difference in outcomes then we must assume that the procedure under test provides a benefit.

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