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08.05.2020 | Original Article

Fear of analgesic side effects predicts preference for acupuncture: a cross-sectional study of cancer patients with pain in the USA

Supportive Care in Cancer
Kevin T. Liou, Kelly M. Trevino, Salimah H. Meghani, Q. Susan Li, Gary Deng, Deborah Korenstein, Jun J. Mao
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Approximately one in two cancer patients globally are under-treated for pain. Opioids and other analgesics represent the mainstay of cancer pain management; however, barriers to their use are well-documented. We evaluated whether acupuncture would be a preferable treatment option among cancer patients with attitudinal barriers to pharmacological pain management.


We conducted a cross-sectional survey of cancer patients at a tertiary urban cancer center and eleven suburban/rural hospitals in the Northeastern United States. We assessed attitudinal barriers to pharmacological pain management with the Barriers Questionnaire (BQ-13). The BQ-13 consists of two subscales: pain management beliefs and analgesic side effects. We also asked patients whether they prefer acupuncture, analgesics, or have no preference between these two modalities for pain management. Covariates included sociodemographics, clinical characteristics, and attitudes/beliefs about acupuncture. We used logistic regression to examine the association between attitudinal barriers and acupuncture preference.


Among 628 patients, 197 (31.4%) preferred acupuncture for pain management, 146 (23.3%) preferred analgesics, and 285 (45.4%) had no preference. The highest reported attitudinal barriers were fear of addiction and fear of analgesic-associated constipation and nausea. Adjusting for covariates, we found that attitudinal barriers related to fear of analgesic side effects were significantly associated with acupuncture preference (adjusted odds ratio [AOR] 1.45, 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.17–1.81), but barriers related to pain management beliefs were not (AOR 1.17, 95% CI 0.91–1.51). Attitudes/beliefs about acupuncture (i.e., greater expected benefits, fewer perceived barriers, and more positive social norms) and female gender also predicted acupuncture preference, whereas race and educational status did not.


Acupuncture may be a preferable treatment option among cancer patients at risk of inadequately controlled pain due to fear of analgesic side effects. Evidence-based integration of acupuncture and analgesics, guided by patient treatment preferences, represents an essential aspect of patient-centered care and has potential to address unmet cancer pain management needs.

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