A new study has recently been published by the Sussex Health Outcomes Research and Education in Cancer (SHORE-C) research group to test the effects of acupuncture on certain side effects of radiotherapy in those suffering from head and neck cancer.
The paper, which was published in the Annals of Oncology, aimed to test the effectiveness of acupuncture versus other treatments for a condition known as Xerostomia.
Xerostomia, also known as ‘dry mouth’, is a common side effect of radiotherapy and can still be present as long as five years after treatment has finished and is present in 41% of those treated with radiotherapy. It is defined as the absence of saliva from the mouth but belies the discomfort felt by patients as it impedes their ability to taste, eat, talk and even sleep due to the extreme parched mouth.
The condition is due to the salivary glands being irreversibly damaged due to the radiotherapy and therefore becoming unable to supply enough saliva to maintain a naturally wet mouth.
The current treatments available for dry mouth are standard oral care products such as mouthwashes and toothpastes and a drug called pilocarpine. However pilocarpine is not frequently prescribed due to its side effects which can be equally as unpleasant, including nausea, dizziness and diarrhoea. Therefore, alternative measures against the treatment are sought after in order to improve sufferers’ quality of life.
The study consisted of 145 patients who received either acupuncture or education in oral care and hygiene for four weeks and then the other treatment for a further four weeks.  Saliva levels were tested objectively using Shirmer strips and patients were asked to complete a questionnaire about their levels of comfort.
Although no measurable difference in saliva levels could be detected, patients reported a notable increase in comfort and a decreased need for water. However it is not known whether this was directly due to the acupuncture or the fact that patients received the acupuncture as a group and psychologically felt better due to sharing their similar experiences.
Further studies are needed to verify the effects of acupuncture in Xerostomia but also how acupuncture works. The physiological influence that acupuncture may have is currently unknown and not understood. Indeed acupuncture is often seen as ineffective and many do not view it as a true medical treatment.
Dr. Valerie Jenkins, a senior research fellow at SHORE-C and one of the authors of the paper, hopes to follow on from this study by using the university’s imaging lab to try and detect the effect of acupuncture on brain activity and therefore pinpoint how and why it works
The results of this paper were produced thanks to a collaboration between SHORE-C and seven different oncology departments across the country. Dr. Jenkins stated that one of the most important aspects of effective research was the combined effort of multiple researchers and clinicians from different research bases collaborating to create new insights into their field.

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