Acupuncture in a technique used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which involves stimulation of specific “energy points” on the human body. Although it is not a cure for mesothelioma, asbestos cancer, or other kinds of cancers, it has been used effectively as a mesothelioma treatment in a palliative sense to relieve the pain and other symptoms associated with such conditions.
Historical and Cultural Background
The original Mandarin term for this technique is zhen bian (“acupuncture” derives from a Latin phrase meaning “needle prick”). Most archaeological evidence indicates that zhen bian in its present form dates from the Han Period (202 BCE – 220 CE), although acupuncture needles made from stone and dating back 5000 years have been found in Inner Mongolia. Similar techniques involving the use of needles are described in the medical literature of Korea, Japan, and Tibet.
Interestingly, a 5300-year-old mummified body discovered in the Ötztal region of Austria has tattoos corresponding to acupuncture points that modern practitioners would use in order to treat some of the conditions from which this “Iceman” is believed to have suffered from during his life. This suggests that similar techniques were practiced in Central Europe during the Bronze Age.
It is possible that early Chinese physicians stumbled upon the principles of zhen bian accidentally when soldiers suffering from arrow wounds in one part of the body experienced relief from pain in another. In any event, the practice became popular in the U.S. beginning in the 1970s, when American tourists returning from the People’s Republic of China reported seeing patients undergoing surgery with acupuncture being the only form of anesthesia. Today, it is considered by the National Institute of Health to be part of Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (CAM).
The Basis of Acupuncture
According to TCM, the basis of good health is the proper balance of yin and yang within the body. Pain is the result of the blockage of Qi (pronounced “chee”), a type of “vital energy” that flows along pathways that are described as “meridians.” According to the principles of TCM, there are between 14 and 20 of these “meridians;” acupuncture points are located where these meridians meet or cross. Some Chinese medical manuals list 2,000 of these acupuncture points.
When a very fine needle is inserted in to a key point, it removes the blockage that is preventing the flow of Qi.
Is It Scientific?
The traditional Western medical community has long engaged in a fierce debate over whether or not acupuncture is a scientifically valid treatment. Some have dismissed it altogether as “pseudoscience,” claiming that there is no way to scientifically prove the existence of “Qi” or “meridians,” nor is there any anatomical proof that such things exist.
On the other hand, Dr. George Ulett, who teaches clinical psychiatry at the University of Missouri and describes the actual practice of traditional acupuncture as “primarily a placebo treatment,” has nonetheless successfully controlled patients’ pain by stimulating 80 traditional acupuncture points electrically:
“Scientific research has shown that healing is not by manipulating Qi but rather by neuroelectric stimulation for the gene expression of neuropeptides. Needles are not necessary. Evidence-based neuroelectric acupuncture requires no metaphysical rituals. It is a simple, useful clinical tool for pain modulation and other conditions and can be easily taught to physicians” (Ulett, 1998).
In short, it appears that acupuncture, for all the mysticism and metaphor surrounding it, indeed has a scientific basis, and what TCM practitioners describe as “Qi” and “meridians” are actually part of the nervous system.
Acupuncture and Cancer
Acupuncture can be an effective palliative treatment for pain as well as the nausea and other side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, but it has no effect on tumors and malignant tissues themselves.
That said, it is worth mentioning that acupuncture is often administered in conjunction with various medicinal plants that have been studied by Chinese doctors for 3,000 years. Of the some 140 biologically active substances isolated from these plants, several have been shown to have anti-cancer properties.