Acupuncture Could Help Patients With Breast Cancer Find Relief

Acupuncture for breast cancer patients on aromatase inhibitors improved anxiety and depression

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) As acupuncture becomes more common, more research is exploring its effects. One new study found that the practice may help some breast cancer patients.

The study focused on breast cancer patients coping with joint pain and quality-of-life issues like fatigue and anxiety.

The researchers found that electroacupuncture improved the patients' fatigue, anxiety and depression in the short-term but had no major effect on quality of sleep.

"Ask your oncologist which alternative therapies might help your treatment plan."

The authors of this new study, which was led by Jun J. Mao, MD, MSCE, of the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, wanted to explore whether a certain type of acupuncture could relieve a number of quality-of-life issues common to breast cancer patients — including sleep troubles, fatigue, depression and anxiety.

The 67 women studied were all breast cancer patients who were experiencing joint pain tied to their use of aromatase inhibitors, a common medication given to postmenopausal breast cancer patients.

The study took place between September 2009 and May 2012 at the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania. The women were 59.7 years old and 71.6 percent white on average.

Dr. Mao and team focused on electroacupuncture, a type of acupuncture that passes a small electric current between acupuncture needles inserted into the body.

One group of 22 women received 10 sessions of electroacupuncture over an eight-week period. A control group of 23 women received no treatment, and the final 22 women received 10 sessions of "sham acupuncture" — a treatment that involved needles that didn't actually penetrate the skin being placed on the body but not at acupuncture trigger points.

The researchers measured the quality-of-life issues at the study's start, after eight weeks of treatment and again at a 12-week follow-up.

Dr. Mao and colleagues found that, after eight weeks, the patients receiving electroacupuncture saw a greater drop in their fatigue scores than the control patients. The Brief Fatigue Inventory measures fatigue on a scale from 0 to 10, and the electroacupuncture patients had an average drop of 2 points more than the control group. At week 12, the electroacupuncture group was still better off in terms of fatigue.

The electroacupuncture patients also saw greater improvements in their anxiety levels at follow-up, measured by the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS). At week 12, the electroacupuncture patients' score on the anxiety portion of this scale — which ranges from 0 to 21 — dropped an average of 2.2 points more than the control group. At week eight, the differences between the two groups were not statistically significant.

Patients who received both electroacupuncture and sham acupuncture saw greater improvements in depression scores. The electroacupuncture group saw an average drop of 2.4 points more than the control group at week eight, and the sham acupuncture group saw an average drop of 2 points more. Both acupuncture groups had more favorable depression levels at week 12.

None of the groups saw significant improvements in quality of sleep during the study period.

This study used a fairly small sample size, and further research is needed to confirm these findings over a larger number of breast cancer patients.

The study was published online July 30 in the journal Cancer.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine provided some funding for the study. Several of the study authors reported consulting work for a number of pharmaceutical organizations, including Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Roche.

Review Date: 
July 29, 2014
Last Updated:
March 25, 2015