Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: April 2019.

Acupuncture is the use of thin, metallic needles inserted through the skin at strategic points on the body. It is a key component of traditional Chinese medicine and is most often used to treat pain.1 Many patients with lung cancer use complementary therapies such as acupuncture to help relieve their symptoms and reduce the side effects from traditional treatments.2

Traditional Chinese medicine explains acupuncture as a tool to balance the energy flow or life force, known as qi or chi (pronounced “chee”). In Chinese medicine, this life force energy flows through the body in meridians, or pathways. By using needles at specific points on these meridians, acupuncturists believe the body’s natural energy flow will re-balance and symptoms of disease will be relieved. The effects of acupuncture are cumulative, and many people need several treatments to experience benefit.3,4

Benefits of acupuncture for cancer patients

Patients with lung cancer use acupuncture for a number of reasons. Some patients find that acupuncture can help them quit smoking. Many people use acupuncture to relieve pain and muscle tension. Others use acupuncture to manage side effects from treatment, such as nausea, vomiting, dry mouth, and fatigue.4,5

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An analysis of multiple studies was conducted to observe the potential benefits of acupuncture for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Researchers found there was evidence to support the role of acupuncture in preventing or reducing nausea and vomiting when used in addition to other treatment options.2

Another review of studies evaluated acupuncture for cancer related pain. Pain experienced by patients with cancer can have several causes, including the tumor(s) itself, pain from surgical interventions, or chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN), a side effect from chemotherapy that causes damage to the nerves that control the arms, legs, bladder, and bowel. While the data suggests that acupuncture can have a benefit in reducing cancer-related pain, researchers found a scarcity of data on acupuncture for CIPN.2,6

One small study that evaluated acupuncture in 30 patients with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and 3 patients with small cell lung cancer (SCLC) found that acupuncture may be effective in improving symptoms of pain and well-being. Patients in the study received a median of 7 acupuncture sessions and reported statistically significant improvements in pain, appetite, nausea, nervousness, and well-being.7

Another study of acupuncture in lung cancer patients demonstrated the cumulative benefits of multiple treatments. Sixty percent of patients who received at least 4 acupuncture treatments experienced a reduction in pain, and 30% noted improvement in their sense of well-being. When those patients received 6 or more treatments, the improvement in well-being increased to 70%.8


Acupuncture is a non-drug therapy, and as such does not have the risk of side effects seen with pharmacological treatments. It is considered a safe, minimally invasive treatment and several studies have demonstrated its effectiveness in treating symptoms such as pain.3

In an analysis of multiple publications from clinical trials studying the safety of acupuncture in patients with cancer, researchers found that acupuncture is generally safe when performed by a qualified professional practitioner. Serious adverse events from acupuncture are rare.2