Pioneering research by The Christie NHS Foundation Trust in Manchester has found that acupuncture can help more than half of patients who suffer from neuropathy, a debilitating numbness, which can be caused by chemotherapy.

Believed to be the largest study of its kind ever undertaken, the aim was to discover if acupuncture, added to standard of care medication for patients experiencing severe chemo-inducted peripheral neuropathy, can significantly improve the condition for many.

The trial involved 120 patients over three years at two of the cancer centre’s sites in Withington and Oldham in Greater Manchester.   Half the group were offered weekly hour-long acupuncture sessions over a 10 week period. Patients described then graded their own worst symptoms at the beginning and end of their treatment. As a result of the sessions, 68% found their dexterity and mobility improved.

Neuropathy causes multiple debilitating symptoms including incapacitating numbness, excruciating pain and severe tingling or ‘pins and needles’, which can make driving, walking and performing everyday tasks such as washing, dressing, cooking and shopping impossible. 

Professor Andrew Wardley, consultant medical oncologist at The Christie and chief investigator for the ACUFOCIN trial, said: “We believed acupuncture could help patients with chemo-induced peripheral neuropathy but there was no real evidence of this. A study of this size had not been undertaken before, as far as we were aware, and so we decided to try and prove it for ourselves. We hope this trial will lead to a new standard of care for treating this condition, improving the lives of millions of patients.”

Dr Jacqui Stringer, lead for complementary health and wellbeing at The Christie, commenting on the trial, said: “The results were phenomenal and validated earlier clinical data. The patients eligible to enter the study were all experiencing serious problems with their motor function as a result of chemotherapy, some for several years. We know neuropathy is more prevalent in patients treated with certain chemotherapy drugs such as ’Taxanes’. It is hoped this trial acts as a springboard to a larger, multi-centre study to further explore how we can best help patients suffering from this debilitating condition during and after treatment. It will help so many people who have finished treatment but still aren’t able to get back to a normal life.”

Paula Maycock, the lead therapist on the trial explained: “We had patients who had lost so much dexterity that they couldn’t hold a cup of tea or peg out their washing. During the 10 week period, dexterity slowly returned to some degree for most of the patients on the trial.  When asked to describe the sensation, it is different for everyone and patients described it like walking on golf balls to walking on foam or having feet in wellington boots full of wet sand.  Everyone said they had gained something to varying degrees from the therapy we delivered.”

Helen Lowell, 77, from Cheadle Hulme in Stockport in Greater Manchester was one of the patients on the trial. Having received chemotherapy for cancer of the womb, she found neuropathy to be a side effect of the treatment she received at The Christie 18 months ago.

“I had to give up driving.”  Helen explained. “It was also small everyday things I struggled with, like fastening a necklace and tying shoelaces. And the pen would slip when I tried to write. I finished my treatment nearly a year ago but the neuropathy remained a problem. The acupuncture did its job and my symptoms have reduced and I’m driving again. I enjoy lace-making and embroidery, and I can do that again which is great. And my writing is much better now. I’m really pleased with the difference the acupuncture has made. I’m not a giver-upper and I was prepared to try anything to get my life back to normal after my illness.”

The Christie NHS Foundation Trust was the first specialist trust to be rated as ‘Outstanding’ twice (in 2016 and 2018) by the health regulator the Care Quality Commission (CQC). It referred to The Christie as ‘a leader in cancer care’ and ‘a pioneer in developing innovative solutions to cancer care.’ The CQC praised the Trust’s staff which it said ‘go the extra mile to meet the needs of patients and their families’ and that they were ‘exceptionally kind and caring.’ In 2017, the CQC rated The Christie as the best specialist trust in the country, and one of the top three trusts overall in England.