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Patients with Dry Mouth may Benefit from Acupuncture: Study

Update Date: Nov 02, 2012 12:30 PM EDT

Xerostomia is a dry mouth symptom often suffered by patients diagnosed with head and neck cancer. This symptom is a result of radiation treatment given to such patients, which damages their salivary glands.

A new study suggests that patients suffering from xerostomia can perhaps find relief in the usage of acupuncture, a treatment originating from ancient China.

According to researchers, up to 41 percent of around 500,000 who are diagnosed with head and neck cancer suffer from dry mouth, even after five years of treatment.

Dry mouth also has consequent symptoms - it affects the patient's taste, speech and sleep.

For the current study, physicians at seven cancer centers around the United Kingdom assessed 145 individuals suffering from dry mouth and compared acupuncture with education about oral care.

The study participants were given either group acupuncture for 20 minutes every week for eight weeks, or two oral care educational sessions for one hour, one month apart, Medical Xpress reported.

For the study, the researchers used Schirmer strips, or paper strips, in order to measure the saliva in the mouth of patients.

Also, patients were asked questions pertaining to their individual symptoms, including sticky saliva, dry lips, need to sip water and waking at night to sip water.

Although the researchers did not find an improvement in the production of saliva, participants who received acupuncture for nine weeks reported improved dry mouth, in comparison to patients who were given oral care education.

"Time had an important effect on key symptoms, with patients receiving acupuncture showing a quick response, which was sustained over several weeks," said co-author Dr. Richard Simcock, a consultant clinical oncologist at the Sussex Cancer Centre.

"There was no clear relationship between a patient indicating they had a very dry mouth and the measurement of saliva on the Schirmer strips. 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 study members said the placebo effect did not likely improve the experience of xerostomia.

"The profound impact that xerostomia exerts on functions such as eating, talking and sleeping, which were relieved by the acupuncture means that if it is entirely a placebo effect then this is a pretty powerful placebo," said Dr. Valerie Jenkins, Deputy Director of Sussex Health Outcomes Research & Education in Cancer (SHORE-C) at Brighton & Sussex Medical School, University of Sussex.

The finding was presented in the journal Annals of Oncology.

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