10/28/2012 09:54 am ET

Acupuncture Could Relieve Dry Mouth In Head And Neck Cancer Patients, Study Suggests

acupuncture needle
acupuncture needle

Acupuncture could help to relieve a common side effect of cancer treatment, according to a small new study.

Research published in the Annals of Oncology shows that head and neck cancer survivors with dry mouth -- also called xerostomia, a common side effect of radiotherapy treatments where there is not enough saliva in the mouth -- who underwent acupuncture reported fewer symptoms of the condition than those who only had educational sessions about oral care.

"This is a very neglected group of patients suffering from a most unpleasant side-effect of treatment for which all other ameliorative interventions have failed to address adequately," study researcher Dr. Richard Simcock, a consultant clinical oncologist at the Sussex Cancer Centre, said in a statement. "The acupuncture intervention has been designed in a way that allows it to be delivered simply and cheaply in normal hospital surroundings and yet still produces a significant benefit for patients with a chronic symptom."

The study included 145 head and neck cancer survivors, all of whom experienced symptoms of dry mouth because of their cancer treatments. Some of the survivors had eight weeks of acupuncture sessions (20 minutes a week), while others attended an hour-long education session about oral care once a month.

Then, four weeks after both groups had had their last session, they traded places and the oral care group had acupuncture, while the acupuncture group had the oral care sessions.

Before and after the sessions, researchers had the study participants rate their symptoms of dry mouth, and also administered a test of dry mouth by measuring saliva levels with tools called Schirmer strips.

Researchers found that there was no significant difference between saliva levels as measured by the Schirmer strips between the acupuncture and oral care groups, but the acupuncture group did report fewer symptoms of dry mouth than the oral care group.

Despite this discrepancy, researchers said that the reports of fewer dry mouth symptoms are more important than the results of the Schirmer strips test because "these patients with chronic xerostomia produced little or no saliva, making objective measurements really difficult," Simcock said in the statement.

"Many studies have focused on the objective measurement of how much saliva is produced, but the amount of saliva produced does not necessarily influence the experience of a dry mouth," he added. "Xerostomia is therefore an entirely subjective symptom -- it is what the patient says it is, regardless of salivary measurement."

This is certainly not the first time acupuncture has shown promise in treating dry mouth in cancer patients. Researchers at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and the Fudan University Shanghai Cancer Center had a study published last year in the journal Cancer showing that head and neck cancer patients undergoing radiotherapy had improved saliva flow after undergoing acupuncture, compared with people who just received standard care.

"The medical implications are quite profound in terms of quality of life, because while chronic dry mouth may sound benign, it has a significant impact on sleeping, eating and speaking," the researcher of that study Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., director of MD Anderson's Integrative Medicine Program, said in a statement. "Without saliva, there can be an increase in microbial growth, possible bone infection and irreversible nutritional deficits."



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