Acupunct Med 28:191-199 doi:10.1136/aim.2010.002733
  • Original papers

Clinical effectiveness and safety of acupuncture in the treatment of irradiation-induced xerostomia in patients with head and neck cancer: a systematic review

  1. I J Higginson2
  1. 1Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Department, Cork University Dental School and Hospital, UCC, Wilton, Cork, Ireland
  2. 2Department of Palliative Care, Research and Rehabilitation, Dame Cecily Saunders Institute, King's College London, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr E M O'Sullivan, Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Department, Cork University Dental School and Hospital, UCC, Wilton, Cork 9999, Ireland; eleanor.osullivan{at}
  • Accepted 10 September 2010
  • Published Online First 9 November 2010


Background Irradiation-induced xerostomia seriously reduces quality of life for patients with head and neck cancer (HNC). Anecdotal evidence suggests that acupuncture may be beneficial.

Objective To systematically review evidence on clinical effectiveness and safety of acupuncture in irradiation-induced xerostomia in patients with HNC.

Methods A detailed search was performed to identify randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and systematic reviews of RCTs on acupuncture in irradiation-induced xerostomia, using AMED, BNIA, CINAHL, Cochrane, Embase, HPSI, PsycInfo and Medline. Grey literature was explored and 11 journals hand searched. Search terms included: acupuncture, xerostomia, salivary hypofunction, hyposalivation, dry mouth, radiotherapy, irradiation, brachytherapy, external beam. Two authors independently extracted data for analysis using predefined selection criteria and quality indicators.

Results 43 of the 61 articles identified were excluded on title/abstract. 18 articles underwent full-text review; three were deemed eligible for inclusion. Two trials had moderate risk of bias; one had high risk. Two trials compared acupuncture with sham acupuncture; one control arm received ‘usual care’. Outcome measurements included salivary flow rates (SFRs) in two trials and subjective questionnaires in three. All three trials reported significant reduction in xerostomia versus baseline SFR (p<0.05); one reported greater effect in the intervention group for stimulated SFR (p<0.01). Subjective assessment reported significant differences between real acupuncture and control in two trials (p<0.02–0.05). Insufficient evidence was presented to undertake risk/benefit assessment.

Conclusions Limited evidence suggests that acupuncture is beneficial for irradiation-induced xerostomia. Although current evidence is insufficient to recommend this intervention, it is sufficient to justify further studies. Highlighted methodological limitations must be dealt with.


  • Funding This research was undertaken while the main author (EMO'S) was undertaking an MSc in Palliative Care in King's College, London which was partly funded by an educational grant from the Irish Hospice Foundation. IJH is an NIHR (UK) senior investigator.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.