Acupuncture Relieves Symptoms of Dry Mouth Caused by Radiotherapy

By Rebecca Lewis on October 25, 2012

Radiotherapy involves the application of high energy rays on the affected area to destroy cancer cells. But just like other forms of medical treatments, radiotherapy comes with side effects too which may affect the patient’s blood, skin, fertility, digestive system, and overall quality of life.

A team of UK researchers conducted a study that seeks to measure the effects of acupuncture in alleviating the side effects of radiotherapy, particularly dry mouth or xerostomia. This distressing condition happens as a result of the damage in the salivary glands due to radiation. Dry mouth can affect a person’s quality of life as it interferes with speaking, eating, swallowing, and sleeping.

Common treatments for dry mouth include mouthwashes, toothpaste, gel-based creams and medications like the pilocarpine which often have side effects.

Researchers examine the effects of acupuncture to dry mouth

For their study, the researchers recruited 145 cancer patients who had dry mouth as a result of radiotherapy. Half of them received acupuncture sessions lasting 20 minutes each, for eight weeks. The other half were given oral care advice for two two-hour sessions. The experiment continued for 9 weeks, and after a four-week interval, the two groups changed places – so the acupuncture group had their oral care sessions while the oral care group received acupuncture treatments.

Prior the experiment, the UK doctors measured the dryness of the mouth of each participant using paper strips which indicated the amount of saliva in their mouth. Other symptoms were also assessed, like how sticky their saliva is, whether they have dry lips, need to sip water to swallow, etc.

After assessing the participants, the researchers found no significant change in the saliva production of patients from both the acupuncture and oral care groups. However, patients who received acupuncture were two times more likely to experience relief from the symptoms as compared to those who only received oral care advice.

According to the researchers, assessing the relief from symptoms is far more significant in reporting improvements in dry mouth than simply measuring the amount of saliva produced using the paper strips. Dr Richard Simcock, one of the study authors and a consultant clinical oncologist at the Sussex Cancer Centre said that there was no clear relationship between dry mouth and the measurement of saliva. By definitions, people with xerostomia produced little or no saliva at all, making objective measurements very difficult, he added. He also said there have been many studies that focused on measuring saliva to determine the degree of xerostomia but what is important is what the patient experiences.

No placebo effect

The team reports that patients showed a quicker response to acupuncture which was sustained for several weeks. They also believe that the effects of acupuncture to the symptoms of dry mouth are no placebo effect. According to Dr Valerie Jenkins, deputy director of Sussex Health Outcomes Research & Education in Cancer at Brighton & Sussex Medical School, University of Sussex who supervised the research, acupuncture relieved much of the profound symptoms of dry mouth including eating, sleeping and talking difficulties, and that if it’s just a placebo effect, it must be a very powerful placebo.

Their report was published in the journal Annals of Oncology.


Sources of this article:

’ARIX: A randomised trial of acupuncture v oral care sessions in patients with chronic xerostomia following treatment of head and neck cancer’, R. Simcock, Annals of Oncology.

Cancer Research UK.


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