Acupuncture is part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and has been used in China for thousands of years. Acupuncture is based on the belief that a vital energy called qi (pronounced chee) flows through your body in a network of channels called meridians.

Qi has 2 life forces, yin and yang. Yin and yang are opposite but balancing forces that together form a whole. Health is seen as the balance of yin and yang, where qi flows freely through the body. Problems with the flow of qi are believed to affect your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health.

Acupoints are certain points along the meridians. They are used to unblock the flow of qi and restore balance and health to the body. There are more than 2,000 acupoints on the body, and specific points match the specific condition being treated.

Acupuncture is usually done with very thin stainless steel needles. The needles are inserted into your skin at certain acupoints. The acupuncturist decides which acupoints to treat and how many needles will be used. Once inserted, the acupuncturist may twirl or move the needles up and down. The needles are left in place for a time, often several minutes, while you lie on the treatment table.

Acupoints may be unblocked in other ways, such as with fingers (acupressure), light beams (laser), weak electrical currents (electroacupunture) or ultrasound.

Acupuncture is sometimes used along with other TCM healing techniques:

Moxibustion is a type of heat therapy. Chinese herbs are burned above the body to warm a meridian at an acupoint. The goal is to increase the flow of blood and qi.

Cupping uses small, round, glass cups. They are warmed and placed upside down on acupoints. This makes a vacuum that holds the cup to the skin. Cupping is used to increase the flow of blood and qi. The goal is to open up the pores to get toxins to leave the body.

Acupuncture as a complementary therapy

There is no evidence at this time that acupuncture can treat cancer itself. As a complementary therapy for people living with cancer, the strongest evidence for acupuncture is helping ease nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy. Several studies have shown that acupuncture is most helpful for easing acute vomiting after chemotherapy. Acupressure works best for acute nausea.

Most studies have shown that acupuncture does not reduce nausea and vomiting caused by radiation therapy.

More research is needed to find out if acupuncture helps with other side effects such as pain, fatigue, anxiety, loss of appetite or shortness of breath. They are also trying to find out if it can relieve nerve damage caused by chemotherapy or dry mouth caused by radiation therapy. Other research is looking at the safety of acupuncture in people with lymphedema.

Side effects and risks of acupuncture

Talk to your healthcare team if you are thinking about having acupuncture. Acupuncture may not be recommended if you have low white blood cell counts (because of the risk of infection) or low platelet counts (because of the risk of bleeding). Tell your acupuncturist that you have cancer, any treatments that you have had or are having, and any medicines that you’re taking.

Acupuncture is generally thought to be safe. When it is done by a qualified practitioner, the risk of side effects is low.

Sterile, single-use, disposable needles lower the risk of infection or of transmitting HIV or hepatitis viruses. Sterile needles are very important for people receiving chemotherapy and radiation therapy because these treatments can weaken the body’s immune system.

Everyone experiences acupuncture differently. Most people feel no or very little pain as the needles are put into or taken out of the skin. You may feel aching, warmth, tingling or heaviness during acupuncture. This is called the “de qi sensation” in traditional Chinese medicine. Some people feel it for a few minutes after treatment. Others have it for longer, even for several hours.

A very small amount of blood may appear where the needle is inserted. This is more common in people who are taking blood thinners, such as aspirin. A small bruise may appear at a bleeding needle site, but it disappears in a few days. Bruising can also appear after cupping, because of the suction on the skin.

Other side effects of acupuncture can include fatigue, dizziness, feeling sleepy and nausea. Very rarely, people may have nerve damage after acupuncture or burns after moxibustion.

Finding a therapist

Someone who gives acupuncture is often called an acupuncturist or an acupuncture therapist. It’s important to have acupuncture done by a qualified practitioner who has worked with people who have cancer. Several national, provincial and territorial organizations set standards of practice for acupuncture in Canada. These organizations can help you find a qualified acupuncturist. Acupuncture is regulated in several provinces and territories.

Expert review and references

  • Deng G, et al . Acupuncture for the treatment of post-chemotherapy chronic fatigue: a randomized, blinded, sham-controlled trial. Supportive Care in Cancer. Springer; 2013.
  • Garcia MK et al . Systematic review of acupuncture in cancer care: a synthesis of the evidence. Journal of Clinical Oncology. American Society of Clinical Oncology; 2013.
  • Kedar A, Hakimian A, & Gamus D . Acupuncture for cancer patients. Progress in Palliative Care. Maney Publishing; 2012.
  • National Cancer Institute. Acupuncture (PDQ®) Health Professional Version. National Cancer Institute; 2014:
  • National Cancer Institute. Acupuncture (PDQ®) Patient Version. National Cancer Institute; 2014:
  • Paley CA, Johnson MI, Tashani OA, Bagnall AM . Acupuncture for cancer pain in adults. The Cochrane Collaboration. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. John Wiley & Sons; 2012:
  • Pinkowish MD . Acupressure and acupuncture for side effects of radiotherapy. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. American Cancer Society; 2009.
  • Posadzki P et al . Acupuncture for cancer-related fatigue: a systematic review of randomized clinical trials. Supportive Care in Cancer. Springer; 2013.
  • Simcock R, et al . ARIX: a randomised trial of acupuncture vs oral care sessions in patients with chronic xerostomia following treatment of head and neck cancer. Annals of Oncology. Oxford University Press; 2013.
  • Smith ME & Bauer-Wu S . Traditional Chinese medicine for cancer-related symptoms. Seminars in Oncology Nursing. Elsevier; 2012.
  • Zhuang L, et al . The preventive and therapeutic effect of acupuncture for radiation-induced xerostomia in patients with head and neck cancer: a systematic review. Integrative Cancer Therapies. Sage Publications; 2012.