Acupunct Med 29:173-179 doi:10.1136/aim.2011.004044
  • Original papers

Is there a role for acupuncture in the symptom management of patients receiving palliative care for cancer? A pilot study of 20 patients comparing acupuncture with nurse-led supportive care

  1. Steven K H Aung3
  1. 1Division of Radiation Oncology, Department of Surgery, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
  2. 2Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  3. 3Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
  1. Correspondence to Dr Jan T W Lim, 2410 Lee Avenue, Victoria V8R 6V5, British Columbia, Canada; jlim{at}
  • Accepted 28 April 2011
  • Published Online First 11 June 2011


Purpose A pilot study to document changes in symptoms after acupuncture or nurse-led supportive care in patients with incurable cancer.

Methods Patients receiving palliative care with estimated survival of at least 3 months were screened with the Edmonton Symptom Assessment System (ESAS). Patients (n=20) with significant symptoms were randomised to receive weekly acupuncture or nurse-led supportive care for 4 weeks. ESAS scores were obtained before and after each treatment, and weekly for 6 weeks after treatment by telephone.

Results 42 of 170 patients screened were eligible. 20 gave consent for recruitment. The compliance rate was 90% for acupuncture and 80% for nurse-led supportive care. Total symptom scores were reduced by an average of 22% after each acupuncture visit and by 14% after each supportive care visit. Compared with baseline, ESAS scores at the end of the follow-up period were reduced by 19% for the acupuncture arm and 26% for nurse-led supportive care.

Conclusion Patients appear to benefit from incorporating acupuncture in the treatment of advanced incurable cancer. Acupuncture was well tolerated with no significant or unexpected side effects. Acupuncture had an immediate effect on all symptoms, whereas nurse-led supportive care had a larger impact 6 weeks after the final session. Both interventions appear helpful to this population and warrant further study.


  • Funding Funding for this study was supplied from the Canadian Institute for Health Research New Emerging Team Grant ‘Overcoming the barriers to communication in Palliative/EOL Care’. The study also received support from a British Columbia Cancer Foundation Vancouver Island Research and Development Catalyst Grant. These funding sources had no involvement in study design, the collection, analysis and interpretation of data, the writing of the report, or in the decision to submit the paper for publication.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Ethics approval This study was conducted with the approval of the University of British Columbia Office of Research Services Ethics Committee, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

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