Written by Karen Pilkington, Edzard Ernst and the CAM-Cancer Consortium.
Updated December 16, 2015

Acupuncture for fatigue

Does it work?

Several feasibility studies ascertained that acupuncture-trials for cancer fatigue were feasible and that the subject was worthy of further investigation.10-12

Systematic reviews

Five systematic reviews of trials of acupuncture for cancer-related fatigue have presented mixed conclusions.13-17 While the methods used differed, a similar set of clinical trials were selected for these reviews and this included a number of pilot trials. The only meta-analysis that has been conducted showed no significant difference between acupuncture and sham acupuncture, or between acupuncture and no treatment or wait-list control or between acupuncture and acupressure or self-acupuncture.14 The only significant difference was between acupuncture plus education intervention versus usual care. There is a suggestion of a possible benefit from using acupuncture as an adjuvant therapy but, because of lack of blinding, it is not possible to confirm this. It has also been suggested that the dose used in trials was suboptimal and the heterogeneity of the interventions added to the lack of conclusive evidence.

Narrative reviews

Several non-systematic reviews of acupuncture for cancer-related fatigue are available and tend to arrive at cautious conclusions stating that “acupuncture may help”18 or that “insufficient data exist”.19

Randomised controlled trials

In addition to the RCTs included in the systematic reviews, two further trials have been conducted. One of these assessed the effectiveness of electroacupuncture for fatigue related to aromatase inhibitor-related arthralgia.20 Electroacupuncture was compared with sham acupuncture and a wait list control group and effects on fatigue, sleep and psychological distress measured.  Electroacupuncture appeared the most effective treatment but acupuncture was individualised to address a range of symptoms and it is difficult to separate the effects on each of these interlinked outcomes. Thus, the results can be considered preliminary and indicative of a possible benefit only.

A second trial investigated the effects of acupressure on fatigue during chemotherapy in lung cancer patients.21 Acupressure with and without essential oils was tested against sham acupressure at non-acupoints, all treatments being provided daily for 5 months. Changes in fatigue were not significantly different between the acupressure and sham groups.


Karen Pilkington, Edzard Ernst, CAM-Cancer Consortium. Acupuncture for fatigue [online document]. http://cam-cancer.org/The-Summaries/Mind-body-interventions/Acupuncture-for-fatigue. December 16, 2015.

Document history

Summary fully revised and updated in December 2015 by Karen Pilkington.
Summary first published in March 2013, authored by Edzard Ernst.


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