Acupuncture May Be Viable Treatment Option for Breast Cancer Patients

Acupuncture found to help patients manage debilitating side effects from breast cancer treatment.

Acupuncture found to help patients manage debilitating side effects from breast cancer treatment.

Getting pricked by a needle may be one of the last things on the minds of patients with breast cancer, but a new study shows that acupuncture may have benefits for patients experiencing hot flashes related to treatment. The estrogen-targeting therapies cause lower levels of estrogen closely related to instances of hot flashes.

“Though most people associate hot flashes with menopause, the episodes also affect many breast cancer survivors who have low estrogen levels and often undergo premature menopause, following treatment with chemotherapy or surgery,” said lead author Jun J. Mao, MD, MSCE, associate professor of Family Medicine and Community Health. “These latest results clearly show promise for managing hot flashes experienced by breast cancer survivors through the use of acupuncture, which in previous studies has also been proven to be an effective treatment for joint pain in this patient population.”

The study evaluated 120 breast cancer survivors, all of whom reported experiencing multiple hot flashes per day. Participants were randomly split into 4 groups where the researchers would then analyze how effectively an acupuncture technique known as electroacupuncture reduced incidents of hot flashes.

Electroacupuncture is a type of acupuncture that delivers tiny electrical currents through needles in the skin. This technique was evaluated in comparison to the epilepsy drug gabapentin that was previously shown to be effective in reducing hot flashes for these patients.

Patients received gabapentin daily, gabapentin placebo daily, electroacupuncture twice per week for 2 weeks, then once weekly, or “sham” electroacupuncture for an 8-week period. “Sham” electroacupuncture does not involve actual needle penetration or electrical current.

After the 8-week period, the following groups showed improvement from greatest improvement to least improvement/no improvement: electroacupuncture group, “sham” acupuncture group, gabapentin pill group, and placebo group, respectively.

Additionally, both acupuncture groups reported fewer side effects than both pill groups.

During a 16-week follow-up after treatment had ended, patients in all but the gabapentin group reported a sustained, and even slightly increased, abatement of hot flashes.

Compared with the sham version, electroacupuncture produced a 25% greater reduction in hot flash composite scores, suggesting that it really could work better. Although it should be noted that the modest size of the study precluded a statistically definitive conclusion.

However, the study did show that the sham acupuncture treatment worked better to relieve patient symptoms than the placebo, presumably by creating a stronger expectation of benefit.

“Acupuncture is an exotic therapy, elicits the patient’s active participation, and involves a greater patient-provider interaction, compared with taking a pill,” Mao said. “Importantly, the results of this trial show that even sham acupuncture — which is effectively a placebo – is more effective than medications. The placebo effect is often dismissed as noise, but these results suggest we should be taking a closer look at how we can best harness it.”

The sham acupuncture group were also virtually absent of any side effects from treatment. Only one woman reported an episode of drowsiness from the sham acupuncture, whereas the placebo pill recipients reported 8 adverse events such as headache, fatigue, dizziness and constipation.

Some wonder whether acupuncture has a biological effect separate from the power of suggestion. Evidence from prior studies state that it can boost bloodstream levels of endorphins and related painkilling, mood-elevating molecules more directly than via suggestion.

Studies have also indicated a difference in the way traditional acupuncture works in the brain in comparison to sham acupuncture. But for patients, this fact may be overlooked if they can enjoy the benefits of reduction in the frequency of hot flashes, especially compared to no improvement if they receive no treatment.