Study Examines Acupuncture to Alleviate Symptoms for Advanced Colorectal Cancer Patients

PureInsight | March 31, 2003

Study Examines Acupuncture to Alleviate Symptoms for Advanced Colorectal Cancer Patients

[] Colorectal cancer patients with end-stage disease often suffer from physical and psychological symptoms that negatively affect their quality of life (QOL) and require frequent hospital stays. The intensity of these symptoms can prevent patients from enjoying the remainder of their lives and taking full advantage of their limited time with family and friends.

Investigators at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI) are testing the use of acupuncture in alleviating symptom distress in people with advanced colon cancer. The study is supported by a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. In order to determine whether acupuncture helps people with colon cancer, some study participants receive acupuncture and others do not.

"For many terminally ill colorectal cancer patients, their final months are marred by distressing physical symptoms," said Ellen M. Redinbaugh, Ph.D., principal investigator of the study and assistant professor of medicine in the department of behavioral medicine and oncology at the University of Pittsburgh. "These symptoms can be overwhelming for the more than 50,000 colorectal cancer patients who die every year in the United States. Their alarmingly high rates of hospitalization for symptom management near the end of life indicate a clear need for new interventions to ameliorate their distress and promote their quality of life. Acupuncture holds promise as one such technique."

Dr. Redinbaugh added that the physical symptoms of end-stage disease, which often include pain, appetite loss, shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, also cause high levels of psychological distress for patients and contribute to a lessening of QOL.
Acupuncture is a treatment modality that has been used within traditional Chinese medicine for the past 2,500 years to prevent and treat illness. It is widely practiced within the United States as a therapeutic intervention for a variety of health conditions. The theoretical basis for acupuncture is that disruptions in energy flow (qi) cause illness and disease, or an imbalance between the complementary life energies, yin and yang. Acupuncture is practiced to correct the imbalances of energy flow and promote optimal health and relies on the insertion of thin surgical needles into specific points close to the surface of the skin (acupoints) to stimulate energy flow.

"Acupuncture has been used successfully to reduce pain, but there is a lack of well-designed studies that compare it to other treatment modalities in this patient population," commented Andrew Baum, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and psychology and UCPI's deputy director for cancer control and population sciences. "Studies such as this one are needed to increase scientific understanding of its true efficacy in providing comfort to terminally ill patients."

The current study will evaluate the efficacy of acupuncture to improve QOL, promote emotional well-being and decrease physical symptom distress among colorectal patients with a life expectancy of six months or less. One hundred and seventy patients with metastatic colorectal cancer will be recruited for the study through the UPCI's department of gastrointestinal oncology over a four-year period. Once enrolled, patients will be randomly assigned to one of three groups. The first group will receive "true" acupuncture in which needles will be inserted at acupoints associated with emotional well-being. A second group will receive "sham" acupuncture, or the insertion of needles at locations on the body that do not represent actual acupoints. The final group will receive usual care without acupuncture.

Colorectal cancer is second only to lung cancer in numbers of cancer-related deaths in the United States. It can begin with the development of non-cancerous polyps, or growths, on the lining of the colon and rectum. These polyps can develop into cancer, which can over time invade the colon wall and spread to other parts of the body. If detected early, colorectal cancer is highly curable.

The healing effect of acupuncture is now widely acknowledged in western society. But so far, research on acupuncture in the west is limited to the results that it can achieve. The western medical establishment has little or no understanding on the reason why acupuncture works. According to the theory of Chinese medicine, there are many reasons behind the healing effect of acupuncture, including interactions among substances of different dimensions and the principle of mutual generation and mutual inhibition. It is very difficult to conduct thorough research on acupuncture with the existing methods of contemporary science.


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