Dry mouth is a condition where there is a decrease in, or complete lack of, saliva production. It is most commonly seen in cancer patients whose salivary glands have been affected by radiation or other medications. Dry mouth can also lead to difficulties in speaking, chewing, swallowing, altered tastes, and sleeping.
Traditional ways of treating dry mouth include medications that lessen the side effects of radiation or stimulate the salivary glands, saliva substitutes and mouth rinses, and sucking lozenges or chewing gum.
Acupuncture is gaining support as a valid intervention in palliative medicine. There are a few published research articles favorably showing acupuncture to improve symptoms of dry mouth in radiation patients.
A research article published in the Annals of Onclology in 2013 compared acupuncture for dry mouth to education about oral care in 145 patients with radiation-induced dry mouth. Patient were randomly assigned to the acupuncture group, where they received group acupuncture every week for eight weeks, or the education group, where they had two hour long oral health educational sessions one month apart. Four weeks after the end of the acupuncture and education, the patients switched to receive the other treatment. Dry mouth symptoms were measured objectively with Schirmer strips, which determines the amount of saliva in the mouth, and subjectively with patient-reported changes.
Although there were no significant changes in saliva production, acupuncture significantly reduced patient reported symptoms of dry mouth, sticky saliva, needing to sip fluids to swallow food, and waking in the night to drink compared to oral health education. Also worth noting is that those who received acupuncture had a quick response that was sustained over several weeks.
There is no clear relationship between the subjective feeling of a dry mouth with the objective measurement of salivary gland production, therefore, it is highly unlikely that acupuncture is a placebo. The profound impact that dry mouth has on eating, talking, and sleeping, and that these symptoms were significantly relieved by acupuncture makes it difficult to assume these effects are the sole result of a placebo.
This is not the only research that supports the efficacy of acupuncture for dry mouth. A randomized controlled trial of ear acupuncture showed dry mouth was relieved in 66% of patients, as opposed to 4% in the control group. Another research study found that a combination of body and auricular acupuncture treatments reduced dry mouth symptoms by 10% in 70% of the patients (35 total), 48% of patients reported greater than 10% improvement, and 13% reported the duration of effect lasting longer than three months. These studies support the use of acupuncture for dry mouth, however, for complete integration, further, larger, and more well-designed trials are necessary.
Radiation patients with dry mouth are an often overlooked group, and the conventional ways of addressing the uncomfortable side effects of dry mouth are inadequate. Acupuncture is an effective, safe, and relatively inexpensive method of treating dry mouth that is easily integrated into a hospital or clinic setting.
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