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Palliative Care for Mesothelioma Pain Management: Acupuncture

Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive form of cancer with no cure. The disease can be treated however—especially if it is caught early. The four main treatments for mesothelioma include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy. A new type of treatment called “biologic therapy” is being tested in clinical trials as well. The treatment uses the patient’s immune system to fight cancer.

Of the available main treatments, patients may undergo one or two, or a combination of them all. In many cases though, patients will undergo surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. This combination may kill more cancer cells, which increases the likelihood of eliminating all of the cancer from the body. Though effective, these mainstays of cancer treatment can cause more side effects. One effect is pain. Add this to the pain associated with the disease itself (chest pain, abdominal pain, etc.), and the effects intensify.

Fortunately, there are ways to help mesothelioma patients cope with the pain. One approach is “palliative care.” Pronounced pal-lee-uh-tiv, palliative care is specialized care that focuses on providing relief from the symptoms and stress of a serious illness. The goal is not to cure, but to improve quality of life for the patient and the family. Also called comfort care, supportive care, and symptom management, palliative care may include nutrition therapy, physical therapy, counseling, and complementary and alternative methods (CAM) such as deep breathing, Reiki, massage, aromatherapy, and acupuncture.

Acupuncture, a common form of palliative care/CAM, has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years as a treatment for a host of conditions. Though it is not used as a treatment for disease in the U.S., studies show that acupuncture may relieve some of the side effects associated with chemotherapy and surgical anesthesia. A few include nausea, vomiting, and fatigue. Studies also show that it helps alleviate pain. In one study, pain sufferers were treated with either standard medical treatment or acupuncture. The study showed that those treated with acupuncture used less pain medicine and missed fewer workdays.

In traditional Chinese medicine, it is believed that acupuncture works by restoring health and balance to energy flow. This has a positive effect on physical illness, addiction, and mental illness. In the West, however, practitioners believe that acupuncture stimulates endorphin production in the body. Endorphins are natural substances made by the body to relieve pain.

Also called acupuncture therapy, acupuncture involves the insertion of thin needles at specific locations in the body called “acupoints.” The needles are inserted just deep enough into the skin to keep them from falling out and they are usually left in place for just a few minutes. The acupuncturist may apply heat or a weak electrical current, or twirl the needles to enhance the effects of the therapy. When done by a licensed professional, acupuncture causes virtually no pain and it is generally considered safe.

In 1996, the FDA approved the use of acupuncture needles by licensed professionals. Today, there are more than 18,000 licensed acupuncturists in the U.S. Though most states have established training standards for licensing the practice of acupuncture, more than 50% of licensed acupuncturists practice in California and New York. Because acupuncture is a widely accepted therapy for diseases such as mesothelioma, it is covered under many private health insurance plans and HMOs.




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