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Acupuncture eases radiation-induced dry mouth in cancer patients


Washington : Acupuncture twice a week relieves debilitating symptoms of xerostomia or severe dry mouth among patients treated with radiation for head and neck cancer.

Xerostomia develops after the salivary glands have been exposed to repeated doses of therapeutic radiation.

People who have cancers of the head and neck typically receive large cumulative doses, rendering salivary glands incapable of producing adequate saliva, said Mark S. Chambers, professor of dental oncology at the MD Anderson Cancer Centre of the University of Texas.

“Symptoms can include altered taste acuity, dental decay, infections of the tissues of the mouth, and difficulty with speaking, eating and swallowing. Conventional treatments have been less than optimal, providing short-term response at best,” said Chambers, the study’s senior author.

Saliva substitutes, lozenges and chewing gum bring only temporary relief, and the commonly prescribed medication, pilocarpine, has short-lived benefits and bothersome side effects of its own.

M. Kay Garcia, clinical nurse specialist and acupuncturist in MD Anderson’s Integrative Medicine Program and the study’s first author, noted that patients with xerostomia may also develop nutritional deficits that can become irreversible.

Garcia, Chambers and their team of researchers conducted a pilot study to determine whether acupuncture could reverse xerostomia.

Acupuncture therapy is based on the ancient Chinese practice of inserting and manipulating very thin needles at precise points on the body to relieve pain or otherwise restore health, said a University of Texas release.

The 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. They produced highly statistically significant improvements in symptoms.

These findings were published in the current online issue of Head & Neck.