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News / May 21, 2009

Acupuncture eases radiation-induced dry mouth

by Guy Hiscott

Twice weekly acupuncture treatments may relieve the symptoms of xerostomia among patients treated with radiation for head and neck cancer, researchers from The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center report in the current online issue of Head & Neck.

People who have cancers of the head and neck typically receive large cumulative doses of therapeutic radiation, rendering the salivary glands incapable of producing adequate saliva.

‘The quality of life in patients with radiation-induced xerostomia is profoundly impaired,’ said Mark S Chambers MS DMD, a professor in the Department of Dental Oncology. ‘Conventional treatments have been less than optimal, providing short-term response at best.’

The team of researchers conducted a pilot study to determine whether acupuncture could reverse xerostomia. Contemporary theories about acupuncture’s benefits include the suggestion that needle manipulation stimulates natural substances that dilate blood vessels and increase blood flow to different areas of the body.

The MD Anderson study included 19 patients with xerostomia who had completed radiation therapy at least four weeks earlier. The patients were given two acupuncture treatments each week for four weeks. The acupuncture points used in the treatment were located on the ears, chin, index finger, forearm and lateral surface of the leg. All patients were tested for saliva flow and asked to complete self-assessments and questionnaires related to their symptoms and quality of life before the first treatment, after completion of four weeks of acupuncture and again four weeks later.

Dr Chambers explains: ‘In this pilot study, patients with severe xerostomia who underwent acupuncture showed improvements in physical well-being and in subjective symptoms. Although the patient population was small, the positive results are encouraging and warrant a larger trial to assess patients over a longer period of time.’