Acupuncture during chemotherapy

Acupuncture involves puncturing the skin with very fine needles in order to treat a variety of conditions (AACP, 2008). All physiotherapists carrying out acupuncture in Spire Healthcare hospitals are qualified therapists and are trained to the professional standards set by the Acupuncture Association of Chartered Physiotherapists (AACP).

What can acupuncture help?

Acupuncture is commonly used to help relieve pain. The benefits of acupuncture to help alleviate nausea are also well documented (Ezzo et al, 2010). Specialist physiotherapist-led acupuncture is available to patients at Spire Murrayfield Hospital in Edinburgh to aid the alleviation of nausea, a side effect sometimes associated with chemotherapy.

Does acupuncture work?

Acupuncture doesn’t work for everyone, or for every condition. It has measurable effects on some body systems, but scientists can’t explain them all in detail. Acupuncture is thought to have a biologic effect on nausea and vomiting (Ezzo et al, 2010).

Some people do not respond to acupuncture, and if there is no improvement after three treatments it is unlikely that acupuncture will help. If this treatment is beneficial in the control of your nausea you can have further acupuncture sessions prior to chemotherapy where possible.

Does acupuncture hurt?

Acupuncture is not pain-free. However, the needles are very thin and do not hurt in the same way as an injection. Manual twirling of the needles may be used to enhance the effect of acupuncture.

Although the treatment may not hurt, some acupuncturists try to produce a sensation known in Chinese medicine as ‘de Qi’ which is a heaviness, tingling, warmth or local soreness around the needle (Furlan et al, 2010). This is traditionally believed to indicate that the acupuncture point has been correctly needled.

Preparing for your acupuncture treatment

Before embarking on acupuncture treatment for nausea, it is important that your chemotherapy nurse and physiotherapist fully consult with you to ensure that acupuncture is an appropriate treatment for you. You do not need to make any special preparations before your appointment.


If you are happy to proceed with the acupuncture you will be asked to sign a consent form. This confirms that you have given permission for the treatment to go ahead. You will be informed about the possible side-effects and complications associated with this treatment in order to give your consent.

About your acupuncture treatment

During your acupuncture session one to two needles are used for the treatment of nausea. They are placed a few millimetres into the skin over the wrist area. They are usually left in for 10 to 30 minutes. Your physiotherapist will ensure that you are in a relaxed position during your treatment.

What are the risks of acupuncture?

Acupuncture is generally safe when performed by a properly qualified practitioner. However, all invasive treatment carries an element of risk. This can be divided into the risk of side-effects and the risk of complications.

Side-effects of acupuncture

These are the unwanted but mostly mild and temporary effects of successful treatment. Very occasional side-effects include, bleeding, bruising and dizziness. Less common side effects include an initial and temporary increase in pain (Ernst et al, 2003, AACP, 2008).

Complications of acupuncture

As with any cut or graze on the skin it is possible for a skin infection to occur at an acupuncture needle site. This may need to be treated with antibiotics. To minimise the risk of infection, acupuncturists at Spire Healthcare hospitals follow strict hygiene guidelines and use sterile, disposable needles. If you are troubled by swelling or lymphodema in your arm, the needles will not be placed on the affected side of your body.

Blood-borne diseases

Properly qualified practitioners, such as those in Spire Healthcare hospitals, use only sterile, disposable acupuncture needles and sterile techniques. This means that your needles will not have been used to treat anyone else. Therefore the risk of transmitting blood-borne infections, such as HIV or hepatitis, is reduced (Beltrami et al, 2000).

Further information
British Medical Acupuncture Society
01606 786 782

Acupuncture Association of Chartered Physiotherapists
01747 861 151

Acupuncture Association of Chartered Physiotherapists (AACP) (2008):

Beltrami, E et al (2000) Risk and management of blood-borne infections in Health Care Workers. Clinical Microbiology Reviews, July pp. 385-407

Ernst, G  et al (2003) Incidence of adverse effects during acupuncture therapy - a multicentre survey. Complimentary Therapies in Medicine, vol 11 (2) June pp. 93-97

Ezzo J et al (2010) Acupuncture-point stimulation for chemotherapy-induced
nausea or vomiting (Review) The Cochrane Library, issue 11.

Furlan AD  et al (2010) Acupuncture and dry-needling for low back pain (Review)
The Cochrane Library, issue 9