Battling cancer with chemo or radiation is tough enough without having to endure months or even years of relentless fatigue afterward.

Yet that’s exactly the challenge that many cancer survivors face.

Bottom Line reported on a study showing that the herb American ginseng can ease this debilitating side effect. But the herb can interact with certain drugs and may not be appropriate for people with diabetes or high blood pressure.

So it’s encouraging to learn about new research identifying another complementary therapy that safely and effectively relieves cancer-related fatigue. We’re talking about a certain kind of acupuncture. Here’s the scoop…


The new study looked at more than 300 patients who had completed cancer treatment within the past five years and who continued to experience moderate-to-severe fatigue. All answered questionnaires that assessed their current levels of overall fatigue and related quality-of-life symptoms.

Participants were divided into two groups. The control group received an informational booklet on how to manage fatigue. The treatment group got the same booklet—plus acupuncture once a week for six weeks. During each 20-minute acupuncture session, needles were placed in three specific areas known as ST36 (below the knee)…SP6 (on the inner ankle)…and LI4 (near the base of the thumb). These points were selected because, according to the principles of acupuncture, they are linked to boosting energy and reducing stress and pain. (In some cases, swelling in one or more of these areas required the acupuncturist to select alternative sites for the needles, but all patients received the same “dose” in terms of number of needles.) At the end of the six weeks, all participants’ fatigue levels were reassessed.

Results: In the control group, fatigue scores on a 20-point scale dropped by less than one point, on average…while in the acupuncture group, fatigue dropped by 3.7 points—and that included improvements in both physical and mental fatigue. People in the acupuncture group also reported significant decreases in depression and anxiety…and improvements in motivation, activity and overall quality of life.

In other words, there was an astounding improvement from the acupuncture—and all with no significant side effects!


No one knows exactly what causes cancer-related fatigue or just why acupuncture helps. But scientists do know that acupuncture affects cytokines (inflammatory substances produced by the immune system), and recent research suggests that cytokines play a role in the development of fatigue.

You might wonder whether the results could have been due solely to the placebo effect, whereby patients feel better simply because they believe that the treatment will help. That’s highly unlikely because at the start of the study, participants were asked how much they expected acupuncture to alleviate fatigue…then the percentage of skeptics and believers were balanced equally among the control group and the acupuncture group…and in the end, acupuncture was just as effective for those who’d had low expectations as for those who’d had high expectations.

Though the participants in this study were all breast cancer patients, fatigue is a significant problem for patients with other types of cancer, too—and acupuncture may be equally effective for them. Additional research is needed to confirm that, as well as to determine how long acupuncture’s fatigue-relieving benefits might last.

In the meantime: If you have battled cancer and continue to be feel dragged down by fatigue, why not talk to your doctor about trying acupuncture? Be sure to use a practitioner who was trained through an accredited program and is registered with a professional regulatory organization, such as the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (for a referral to a licensed acupuncturist, visit, then click on “For Patients”). Even if you’re skeptical about acupuncture, it still might provide a most welcome boost of energy.