In a study (published in May 2010, in the Journal of Clinical Oncology) investigators from the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center studied the potential benefits of acupuncture in patients with cancers of the head & neck who had undergone lymph node surgery (neck dissection.) Neck and shoulder pain is a common symptom (occuring 30-70% of the time) in patients who have undergone a neck dissection. Because acupuncture has been shown in multiple studies to improve neck and shoulder pain from non-surgical causes, the study authors designed a study to examine if it could be used in treating post-surgical pain in these patients.
They randomly assigned 70 patients to either receive weekly acupuncture (one session per week, for 4-weeks) or to a usual care group (no acupuncture, but they could receive physical therapy, pain/anti-inflammatory medications as needed.) The patients were all asked to complete questionnaires regarding neck/shoulder pain and dry mouth (xerostomia.) Dry mouth (xerostomia) is a common symptom in patients who require radiation therapy for cancers in the head & neck (greater than 80% of the patients in this study had received radiation therapy as part of their cancer treatment.)
The investigators found that the patients who received acupuncture had a significant reduction in both their pain levels and dry mouth compared to those patients who received usual care (no acupuncture.) Acupuncture has previously been reported to improve dry mouth in head & neck cancer patients, but this is the first study to demonstrate that it also can significantly reduce neck & shoulder pain after neck dissection.
As a medical acupuncturist, I often recommend a short course of acupuncture for dry mouth (it can also be used for dry eyes) in my patients who have received radiation to the head & neck. Although prior studies have reported that acupuncture can improve post-radiation dry mouth, many patients (as was I before I witnessed the effects with my own eyes) are skeptical about acupuncture being able to improve their dry mouth. It may not work for everyone, but it works frequently enough that I feel that it should strongly be considered for these patients. Unlike medications for dry mouth, acupuncture has a very low risk of side effects and the results are often long-lasting. Additionally, pain medications and anti-inflammatory medications have multiple possible side effects (i.e. drowsiness, stomach upset, increased risk of bleeding, etc.) whereas acupuncture provides an effective, non-toxic pain relieving treatment option.
Thanks to this excellent study (which is published in a highly-respected cancer journal), I hope that more oncology providers will recommend a trial of acupuncture to their for head & neck cancer patients who frequently suffer from dry mouth and/or post-surgical neck or shoulder pain.