One of the side effects of radiation therapy is dry mouth. This is due to damage of salivary glands in head and neck cancer survivors. The clinical term for dry mouth is xerostomia. New studies show that acupuncture can relieve these symptoms of dry mouth. Nearly one half a million people worldwide develop head and neck cancer annually. At present there are not many effective treatments for dry mouth. Dry mouth is a common symptom after the radiation treatment. Nearly 41 percent of these patients are still suffering from dry mouth five years after their radiation treatments.
“Xerostomia affects the patients’ quality of life, interfering with taste, chewing, speaking and sleeping. Short-term solutions such as mouthwashes, gels and toothpastes provide some respite, while treatment with a drug called pilocarpine has its own unwanted side-effects.”
UK researchers did a study comparing acupuncture versus oral care in patients who were suffering from dry mouth due to radiation exposure. Two randomized groups were formed; one group was given acupuncture treatment for 20 minutes weekly for 8 weeks, the other group was given oral instructional education about dealing with dry mouth. There were 145 subjects in all. The group receiving the oral education received these sessions for one hour, once a month. After an additional month had passed, the subjects switched groups.
The researchers tested the saliva by using Schirmer strips. Then “A tried and tested quality of life questionnaire measured patients’ subjective reporting of how their mouths felt, with questions about changes in individual symptoms such as sticky saliva, dry lips, needing to sip water to relieve a dry mouth, needing to sip water to help swallow food, and waking at night to sip water.”
The researchers report that there was an improvement in symptoms among the group who had received the nine weeks of acupuncture. “Dr Richard Simcock, consultant clinical oncologist at the Sussex Cancer Centre and one of the authors of the study, said: “Time had an important effect on key symptoms, with patients receiving acupuncture showing a quick response, which was sustained over several weeks. The researchers said that the subjective reporting of improvements in xerostomia was of more significance than the lack of changes in the objective test with the Schirmer strips. “There was no clear relationship between a patient indicating they had a very dry mouth and the measurement of saliva on the Schirmer strips,” explained Dr Simcock. “By definition these patients with chronic xerostomia produced little or no saliva, making objective measurements really difficult. Many studies have focused on the objective measurement of how much saliva is produced, but the amount of saliva produced does not necessarily influence the experience of a dry mouth. Xerostomia is therefore an entirely subjective symptom — it is what the patient says it is, regardless of salivary measurement.”
The findings for this study on effective treatment for dry mouth were published in the cancer journal Annals of Oncology on October 24. The authors believe that the patients receiving acupuncture reported less dry mouth was not because of a placebo effect, the patient’s testimonies were backed up with reports that they stopped waking up in the middle of the night to sleep water.
The researchers say that more research has to be done but at this point in time, it is easy to incorporate acupuncture into a hospital program for dry mouth. They say it could be administered efficiently and cheaply. This treatment can help a group of patients for which there was not adequate treatment before.