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The largest clinical trial of acupuncture for cancer pain-MSK reports

After a three-year clinical trial that included 360 cancer survivors — the largest of its kind to date — Memorial Sloan Kettering researchers found that two types of acupuncture significantly reduced survivors’ chronic pain. Jun Mao, Chief of the Integrative Medicine Service at MSK, explains how the results published in JAMA Oncology on March, 18, 2021, could improve cancer care and hopefully lead to more insurance coverage for this therapy.

The pain relief of acupuncture lasts for months, which differs from pain medications, which must be taken frequently.

Jun J. Mao

integrative medicine specialist

What did you find?

We found that both electroacupuncture and ear acupuncture significantly reduced people’s chronic pain compared to usual care with or without medication; however, ear acupuncture is not as effective as electroacupuncture. Compared with people receiving usual care, electroacupuncture reduced pain severity by 1.9 points and ear acupuncture by 1.6 points on a scale of 0 to 10. A one-point reduction in pain is clinically meaningful, so this is a pretty big drop. The pain relief of acupuncture lasts for months, which differs from pain medications, which must be taken frequently.

People could better tolerate electroacupuncture as well. Less than 1 percent of participants receiving electroacupuncture dropped out of treatment because of side effects from the treatment, which was most commonly bruising. Eleven percent of people receiving ear acupuncture dropped out of treatment, mostly because of ear pain.

What makes this study unique?

This is the largest trial of acupuncture for cancer survivors. We recruited patients from our Manhattan and regional sites and included a significant portion of minority patients. We also included people with different types of cancer. A lot of previous acupuncture studies focused on women with breast cancer. Here, we included people with prostate cancer, lymphoma, and many other types of disease.

What are the implications?

I hope these results lead to more insurance coverage for cancer survivors receiving acupuncture. In 2020, Medicare started covering acupuncture for lower back pain. The acupuncture coverage for pain in cancer survivors, however, is inconsistent. And some cancer survivors have heart, kidney, or liver conditions due to treatment, which means they shouldn’t take too many pain relievers. Hopefully, these data will encourage healthcare regulators to expand coverage. The urgency is huge: People from lower socioeconomic statuses may not have the same access to acupuncture if it remains uncovered.


Two Kinds of Acupuncture Can Relieve Pain in Cancer Survivors.

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