What does pain from cancer feel like?

Cancer treatment (surgery and radiation) can cause pain but cancer itself can also cause pain. When cancer compresses the spinal cord or if cancer spreads to the bones both of these situations can cause pain. A growing tumor on the spine in the neck or the back can cause severe pain, numbness, and/or weakness. These are emergency symptoms and patients should be seen immediately in a hospital to avoid severe spinal cord damage. When cancer settles into the bones it weakens them and this is often the cause of the deep cancer related bone pain. Treatments for cancer bone pain typically involve medication to help treat both the cancer and strengthen the bones.

I have cancer. Does acupuncture help the pain?

Acupuncture has been demonstrated effective for managing pain conditions so you might think acupuncture would be equally effective for cancer pain. Unfortunately we don’t see an even comparison. Why? Cancer pain is simply more complex. As an example acupuncture may be effective at calming pain levels in general, but if surgery is required to remove a large tumor then acupuncture would be obviously ineffective. 

It’s important to also note that an acupuncturist’s office is not an emergency room. Patients with severe spinal cord compression should not seek acupuncture treatment for emergent symptoms but rather go to an emergency room. The context of acupuncture treatment is more for chronic lingering cancer pain. 

We see this reflected from the data collected in The Acupuncture Research Project. As a quick caveat, The Acupuncture Research project is a literature review, so it’s a big data collection review of thousands of research related treatments. We see acupuncture listed as a potential benefit with the need for more research. From a clinical perspective research is looking for the most beneficial areas acupuncture can help. This makes sense when you consider you need to balance cancer treatments between acupuncture and an entire team of medical experts.

So overall we do see that there are benefits to acupuncture treatment for cancer pain, but we also need more research to figure out how acupuncture fits best into the overall picture. This is how research is done and how treatments become contextualized in the best way. Basically, this is how science integrates with clinical practice.

How long does it take for the treatment to work for pain?

If acupuncture is going to work for a patient there will be pain reduction with each treatment. For severe pain, treatments often take a bite out of the pain whereas low levels of pain typically resolve completely. For long term benefit it is always advisable to do a series of treatments. There are some cases where there is severe swelling as it may take up to four visits before pain levels reduce and this is especially true when patients are also using pain medication. 

How often should you have acupuncture? 

The frequency for acupuncture treatment is especially important. If you had a medication that lasted three days and you only took it once a month you wouldn’t say that medication isn’t working. You would conclude that you are not taking the medication frequently enough. The half life of acupuncture stimulation is roughly three to four days. For patients in active pain I typically request that they be seen two to three times a week (or every day of the week for some patients) for the acupuncture to be beneficial.

What does cancer pain treatment look like in the clinic? 

In the clinic cancer pain patients experience integrative care. When providers work together patients win and that is the philosophy our clinic uses to help patients work with a team of providers. Cancer can be scary and painful, from our clinic you can expect a knowledgeable provider who is happy to help you organize and manage your health as we treat your cancer pain. 

Dr Mark is a professional in every sense of the word.

Paul (Google Reviews)

Dr. Mark VanOtterloo is a licensed acupuncturist and Doctor of Acupuncture, located in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. He is an integrative, functional medicine practitioner specializing in chronic disease and women’s health. To learn more about how acupuncture can help with your with your cancer related pain, schedule an appointment online.

Article References:

Wyant, Tracy, et al. “Facts About Cancer Pain.” American Cancer Society, 3 Jan. 2019, www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/pain/facts-about-cancer-pain.html.
McDonald J, Janz S. The Acupuncture Evidence Project: A Comparative Literature Review (Revised edition). © Australian Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine Association Ltd, 2017: http://www.acupuncture.org.au.