Acupuncture Helped Relieve Breast Cancer Rx Side Effects

Breast cancer aromatase inhibitor side effects reduced with acupuncture

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

(RxWiki News) Medications called aromatase inhibitors are sometimes given to women who’ve been treated for hormone sensitive breast cancer. These medicines have a number of side effects, including hot flashes and joint stiffness and pain.

A small trial found that acupuncture and sham acupuncture that did not penetrate the skin were both helpful in alleviating common symptoms associated with the use of these anti-estrogen medications.

The biggest benefits of the therapy were reductions in the number and severity of hot flashes.

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Ting Bao, MD, DAMBA, MS, of the University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center in Baltimore, Maryland, and her colleagues aimed to evaluate the effect of acupuncture on relieving aromatase inhibitor (AI) side effects. 

AIs are given to postmenopausal women who have had breast cancer fueled by the hormone estrogen. These medications include Arimidex (anastrozole), Aromasin (exemestane) and Femara (letrozole).

While effective in blocking estrogen production, these AIs are also known to produce menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, joint/muscle pain and stiffness and other symptoms.

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine technique that involves inserting thin stainless steel needles into specific points in the body to achieve therapeutic effect. The specific points where the needles are inserted are known as acupoints.

For this study, Dr. Bao and team recruited 47 breast cancer survivors who were currently taking AIs.

About half (23) of the participants received eight weekly acupuncture treatments. The remaining 24 women were given a form of sham acupuncture with retractable needles that didn’t penetrate the skin, which were placed in non-acupoints.

A series of questionnaires were used for patients to report their symptoms at the beginning of the trial and at various intervals for 12 weeks.

Both groups reported some symptom relief, but there were no significant differences between the two groups. The most notable benefits were seen in the number and severity of hot flashes.

Women in the acupuncture group said they had 13 hot flashes a week at the start of the trial and eight hot flashes a week at the final analysis. Women in the sham acupuncture group reported having 15.5 hot flashes a week at the beginning and eight hot flashes a week at the end of 12 weeks.

Those who received acupuncture reported an average reduction in the severity of hot flashes of 37 percent, and those who received sham treatment had median reductions in the severity of hot flashes of 54 percent.

Neither group reported any significant side effects. “This is important because other treatments for symptoms often do have side effects, so showing that this treatment works without side effects could be a big improvement in the treatment of cancer survivors,” Dr. Bao said in a statement.

In analyzing subsets of patients, the researchers discovered that African-American women in both groups reported greater relief in hot flash symptoms than did non-African-American women, the researchers noted.

Brian D. Lawenda, MD, national director of Integrative Oncology and Cancer Survivorship at 21st Century Oncology and founder of, told dailyRx News, "Research in the management of hot flashes has to date found no 'grand slams' in terms of highly effective therapies.”

And this trial did not advance the science, according to Dr. Lawenda. “The authors of this study used a 'one-size-fits-all' acupuncture point protocol that was focused on treating musculoskeletal symptoms — not hot flashes," Dr. Lawenda said.

"In clinical practice, acupuncturists always tailor their selection of acupuncture points based on each patient and their traditional Chinese medicine diagnosis. Based on these issues and others, this small and flawed study is not able to inform us whether acupuncture is effective or not in the management of AI-induced hot flashes," Dr. Lawenda concluded.

This study was published December 23 in Cancer, the peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society.

This trial was supported by the American Society of Clinical Oncology Foundation, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.

Two of the authors reported financial ties to pharmaceutical companies.

Review Date: 
December 20, 2013
Last Updated:
December 23, 2013