Acupressure Combats Fatigue in Breast Cancer Survivors

Self-administered acupressure found to improve sleep and daytime alertness among breast cancer survivors.

A new neuroimaging study published by Frontiers in Neurology suggests that acupressure points specific to certain parts of the brain may relieve symptoms of fatigue in breast cancer survivors.

In the study, the authors examined how 2 types of acupressure affected fatigue in breast cancer survivors through analyzing MRIs.

It is well-known that many patients with cancer experience immediate side effects from treatment, including nausea and cognitive difficulties. Additionally, up to one-third of breast cancer survivors can experience fatigue for several years post-treatment, which can affect quality of life, relationships, and work, according to the authors.

Fatigue is fairly common, but there are limited treatments. A previous study indicated that two-thirds of women were able to reduce their fatigue after self-administering acupressure.

“We wanted to see whether different types of acupressure worked differently in the brain,” said study author Suzanna Zick, ND, MPH. “What is intriguing about this manuscript is that it shows that the two types of acupressure — stimulating and relaxing — do appear to work via different mechanisms within the brain despite the fact that they both reduced fatigue.”

Included in the study were 19 female breast cancer survivors as part of the Michigan Tumor Registry. All patients had participated in the previous acupressure study.

In the new study, 9 patients were taught how to self-administer relaxing acupressure, while 10 patients were taught to self-administer stimulating acupressure.

The authors conducted MRIs at baseline and at the conclude of the 6-week treatment.

“What we were looking at is the connection between the brainstem — a region important in humans and primates that regulates sleep and alertness — and the default mode network, a network of brain regions that is activated when you’re thinking about your internal state,” said study co-author Richard E. Harris, PhD. “Previous research has shown that the way these networks connect and interact are very important in the creation of feelings of fatigue, depression and pain.”

Both groups of patients reported improved fatigue levels and quality of sleep after acupressure; however, the authors discovered distinctly different brain network changes in the patients, indicated by MRI, according to the study.

Patients who self-administered relaxing acupressure were found to have increased connectivity between the superior colliculus and the default mode network, while women who self-administered stimulating acupressure had increased connectivity between the pulvinar and the default mode network, according to the study.

The authors noted that the relaxing acupressure improved sleep, while stimulating acupressure improved daytime alertness, which highlights the importance of the 2 techniques. They concluded that both methods could improve fatigue among these patients.

The authors hope to conduct a larger trial exploring acupressure for breast cancer survivors experiencing fatigue.

“This is the first acupressure imaging study ever, and our results show that different acupressure points do unique things in the brain,” Dr Zick said. “Your entire body is not just one acupoint. I was surprised to see the brain imaging difference to be so dramatic even with such a small sample size.”