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I had chemotherapy 4years ago, I lost my finger and toe nails. Since I have suffered terrible discomfort in my feet. I now find it hard to sleep because of the pain. Would acupuncture help?

Q: I had chemotherapy 4years ago, I lost my finger and toe nails. Since I have suffered terrible discomfort in my feet. I now find it hard to sleep because of the pain. Would acupuncture help?

A: We are sorry to hear of your problems after chemotherapy, and hope that the treatment worked for the condition at which it was aimed.

As you can imagine we have been asked before about neuropathy induced by chemotherapy, and a typical answer has been:


There is a growing body of evidence which suggests that acupuncture can be very effective in helping to reduce the severity of peripheral neuropathy (PN) induced by chemotherapy and to speed up the rate of recovery. If you search on google using the terms ' ncbi acupuncture neuropathy chemotherapy' you will access a major American research database gathering studies from all of the established online collections like PubMed and Medline. The first half dozen results point to a number of recent studies which show very encouraging results, but most of which conclude that a much larger study is warranted before any definite conclusions can be reached. This is not uncommon; research funding for acupuncture is not that freely available in the West, and Chinese studies are often regarded as methodologically unreliable. There is certainly enough to say that acupuncture treatment will probably help.

We have to be careful not to get too drawn into a conventional medicine perspective when answering questions like this, though. If there has been physical damage to the nerve endings then the condition is less likely to be reversible, although there is some cutting edge research which does suggest that peripheral nerves can regenerate. If the nerves are not too badly affected, however, it is important from a Chinese medicine perspective to see how the chemotherapy has affected the whole system. A symptom can be generated by any number of functional disturbances as understood within Chinese physiology, and can also arise from a simple blockage in the flow of energy at a local level. Problems like neuropathy are often a manifestation of both phenomena, and offer a number of treatment options. The skill of the practitioner lies in seeing how the system as a whole is functioning to narrow down the possibilities for treatment selection.

This does not mean that acupuncture can achieve miracles where modern medicine cannot. What we find, however, is that where western medicine assumes a direct causal path between the chemicals and the nerve damage or loss of function, Chinese medicine offers a number of potential routes where, for example, the chemotherapy may have affected a functional unit which in turn has weakened the energy at the periphery.  This is turn may offer a slightly different focus for treatment with better chance of success.

It also explains why people are often confused by the fact that the same symptom  can be apparently treated twenty different ways. From the Chinese medicine perspective the symptom is often only an alarm bell sounding for wider-ranging imbalances, and the practitioner will always look at the overall context to determine how to proceed.

Having looked at this as an answer we think it still represents the best advice that we can offer. We have had another look at the databases, and there has been nothing new since we wrote the earlier reply. Franconi's systematic review, a paper which gathers together results from all other papers, is perhaps the most recent and best summary, but as we said in the earlier reply, he concludes that the results, while encouraging, are far from conclusive.

What we didn't say is that most BAcC members are more than happy to take a look at problems for prospective patients by giving up a few minutes without charge. A short face to face assessment is always going to be far more authoritative than anything we can offer at this remove, so it would be worthwhile contacting BAcC members local to you to see what they think. This also gives you a chance to meet them and see where they work before committing to treatment.

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