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Study finds acupuncture can relieve dry mouth in cancer patients

Twice-weekly acupuncture treatments appeared to relieve debilitating symptoms of dry mouth among patients receiving radiation treatment for head and neck cancer, according to a study published in the online edition of the journal Head & Neck.

Reduced saliva flow that results in a dry mouth, a condition known as xerostomia, can be caused by certain medical disorders and is often a side effect of medical therapies. Some of the common problems associated with dry mouth include a constant sore throat, burning sensation, problems speaking, difficulty swallowing, hoarseness or dry nasal passages.

People with cancers of the head and neck typically receive large cumulative doses of radiation, rendering the salivary glands incapable of producing adequate saliva, said Dr. Mark S. Chambers of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Left untreated, dry mouth can damage the teeth because without adequate saliva to lubricate the mouth, wash away food, and neutralize the acids produced by plaque, extensive decay can occur.

Researchers at the University of Texas conducted a pilot study to determine whether acupuncture could relieve symptoms of dry mouth in cancer patients. 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.

The study included 19 patients with xerostomia who had completed radiation therapy at least four weeks earlier. They received two acupuncture treatments each week for four weeks. The acupuncture points were on the ears, chin, index finger, forearm and lateral surface of the leg.

The researchers found that acupuncture produced measurable improvements in symptoms. A quality-of-life assessment conducted at weeks 5 and 8 also showed significant improvements over quality-of-life scores recorded at the outset of the study.

"In this pilot study, patients with severe xerostomia who underwent acupuncture showed improvements in physical well-being and in subjective symptoms," Dr. Chambers said. "Although the patient population was small, the positive results are encouraging and warrant a larger trial to assess patients over a longer period of time."

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