During acupuncture, the therapist places fine sterile needles just below the skin at certain points on the body. Acupuncture may reduce symptoms such as sickness or hot flushes.

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a treatment that comes from ancient Chinese medicine. Fine needles are inserted at certain sites in the body to treat conditions or help relieve symptoms. There are two traditions of acupuncture.

  • Traditional Chinese acupuncture

    Practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) believe that everyone has a special type of energy (chi or qi) that flows through pathways in the body. They explain acupuncture as a technique for balancing the flow of energy. They believe that inserting needles at specific points along these pathways rebalances your energy flow.

  • Western medical acupuncture

    Practitioners of Western medical acupuncture explain acupuncture based on a medical understanding of the nerves and chemicals in the body. They believe that placing needles under the skin at certain points stimulates nerves in the skin and muscle. Practitioners think that this encourages the body to release certain chemicals, such as endorphins, which act as natural painkillers and give a feeling of well-being.

Acupuncture is available in many NHS hospitals, pain clinics and hospices. The Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture UK (ATCM) is a regulatory body for the practice of acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, and Chinese therapeutic massage, in the UK.

What are the possible benefits of acupuncture for people with cancer?

Some studies show that acupuncture may help to reduce nausea in people who have had chemotherapy. Acupuncture may also be used to relieve pain and other symptoms or side effects.

The benefits of acupuncture are sometimes difficult to measure. Your doctor or acupuncturist can talk to you about what studies have been done and whether acupuncture may help in your situation.

Is it safe to have acupuncture if I have cancer?

Acupuncture does not have many side effects and, when done by a trained professional, is generally safe.

If you are having, or have recently had, cancer treatment, always check with your cancer doctor before having acupuncture.

Some cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, can reduce the number of white blood cells in your blood. This can make you more likely to get an infection.

You should also avoid acupuncture if you have a very low number of platelets (blood cells that help blood to clot), or you bruise easily. These things can increase your risk of bleeding.

If you have had lymph nodes removed as part of cancer treatment, this can cause swelling in the area close by. For example, you might have swelling in your arm after breast cancer surgery. This is called lymphoedema. If you have, or are at risk of, lymphoedema, avoid acupuncture in the part of your body that is at risk.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our complementary therapies information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at

    Cassilieth B. The Complete Guide to Complementary Therapies in Cancer Care: Essential Information for Patients Survivors and Health Professionals. 2011. 

    Ernst E, et al. Oxford Handbook of Complementary Medicine. 2008. 

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Dr Saul Berkovitz.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 31 October 2019
Next review: 31 October 2022

This content is currently being reviewed. New information will be coming soon.

Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

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