Acupuncture Relieves Chronic Dry Mouth

Head and neck cancer radiation induced dry mouth eased with acupuncture

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Imagine having your mouth so dry that you can't really taste food, chewing is difficult and even speaking and sleeping are affected. This is exactly what some people who've been treated with head and neck cancer go through - for years.

Acupuncture has been shown to relieve the symptoms of dry mouth, a common side effect of radiation treatment for head and neck cancer.

The research authors say additional studies are needed to perfect where and how the acupuncture needles are placed, to see how long the effects last and if additional sessions are needed.

"Ask how to reduce cancer treatment side effects."

British researchers conducted the largest trial ever to look at if and how acupuncture could help with dry mouth, a condition known as xerostomia, caused by radiotherapy.

Head and neck cancers affect about 500,000 people around the world. The disease is often treated with radiation, which can damage the glands that produce saliva. The side effect can last years, with 41 percent of patients still suffering from dry mouth five years after radiation.

Currently, mouthwashes, toothpastes and gels can be used for temporary relief.

A drug called pilocarpine (Salagen) can also be used, but has some unpleasant side effects, such as sweating, nausea and swelling in the hands, feet, legs and arms.

For the study, 145 patients with radiation-caused dry mouth were randomly selected to receive either weekly 20-minute acupuncture sessions for 8 weeks, or two training sessions on oral care given one month apart. After 4 weeks, the participants switched and started the other therapy.

Researchers used paper strips called Schirmer strips to measure the level of saliva in the mouth. Study members also completed questionnaires about symptoms, how they tried to relieve them and quality of life issues.

While the study found no big changes in how much saliva was produced, people who received the acupuncture were two times as likely to say they had improved dry mouth symptoms as those who had oral care.

The study also found that acupuncture helped the individuals eat, talk and sleep without waking to sip water.

According to Dr. Richard Simcock, consultant clinical oncologist at the Sussex Cancer Centre and one of the authors of the study, "Time had an important effect on key symptoms, with patients receiving acupuncture showing a quick response, which was sustained over several weeks."

"By definition, these patients with chronic xerostomia produced little or no saliva, making objective measurements really difficult. 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. Xerostomia is therefore an entirely subjective symptom – it is what the patient says it is, regardless of salivary measurement," Dr. Simcock said.

Findings from this study were published October 24 in the Annals of Oncology.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
October 25, 2012
Last Updated:
October 27, 2012