For thousands of years, traditional Chinese acupuncturists have sought to improve health by altering the flow of vital life energy through the body. Tiny needles are inserted at specific acupuncture points along “Qi” channels to restore health and well-being. Western acupuncture follows a more conventional physiological model; needles are placed near specific anatomical features like peripheral nerve junctions. Acupuncture is widely accepted for chronic pain relief, and is now being explored as a promising alternative treatment for lymphedema.
Lymphedema is a distressing life-long condition affecting thousands of breast cancer patients. This condition often occurs after radiation therapy or surgery, in which lymph nodes are damaged or removed. When the lymph system is functioning properly, lymph fluid flows through a network of vessels and nodes before returning to the bloodstream. Damage to the lymph network results in fluid buildup in soft tissues and causes painful swelling in the affected limb.
Existing treatments involve combinations of physical therapy, massage therapy, and self-care regimens, all of which are designed to manage the symptoms of fluid accumulation in the affected arm. Pressure garments and compression devices can be worn to promote lymph flow and reduce painful swelling. There is no curative treatment for lymphedema and these conventional treatments are marginally beneficial. Most patients still experience constant discomfort and must avoid many activities feared to exacerbate their condition.
A pilot study performed at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center analyzed acupuncture as an alternative treatment for lymphedema. Nine women with chronic lymphedema after breast cancer surgery received acupuncture twice a week for 4 weeks. Four women showed at least a 30% reduction in arm swelling, which was indicated by difference in size between affected and unaffected arms. None of the participants experienced infection or adverse events.
For lymphedema patients, the benefits of this treatment method are twofold; acupuncture can reduce pain and lessen swelling. Carefully placed needles are known to ease pain by inhibiting the transmission of nerve impulses and triggering the release of pain-relieving hormones. The clinical trial reports a statistically significant reduction in arm swelling, which is likely due to an acupuncture-induced anti-inflammatory response. In such a response, signaling molecules called cytokines are released to rouse the vascular system. As lymph fluid drains from inflamed tissues and returns to the bloodstream, limb swelling is reduced.
In the past, acupuncture has not been recommended as a treatment for lymphedema due to infection risk and other adverse events. The pilot study demonstrates that a qualified practitioner can minimize infection risk by using disposable needles and appropriate sterilization methods. Further clinical studies with more participants may reveal acupuncture to be a remarkable option for lymphedema patients.
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