WOMEN'S HEALTH
February 18, 2010

Acupuncture and Breast Cancer

Giving breast cancer patients acupuncture can help ease the side effects of hormone therapy and improves sex drive in some.

Hot flashes, night sweats, and depression are some of the side−effects that can accompany hormone therapy, which breast cancer patients often undergo after cancer treatment. But new research suggests that acupuncture may be at least as effective in treating these symptoms as conventional medications.

The research marks the first randomized study to compare acupuncture to a commonly prescribed antidepressant medication instead of sham−acupuncture treatments, as has typically been done in the past.

Some of the women in the acupuncture group (about 25%) also said they had a better sex drive than they had – and they also said they felt more energized and thought more clearly than the medicated group.

In the current study, 50 women undergoing breast cancer treatment were assigned either to receive acupuncture or the antidepressant Effexor for 12 weeks. The women were then followed for a year and their symptoms monitored.

While the women in the two treatment groups initially had about the same degree of improvement in symptoms (with hot flashes and depression being cut by about half), the acupuncture groups showed more consistent improvements over the long−term. The women who had taken the antidepressant had recurrence in hot flashes, whereas the women who had received acupuncture continued to enjoy fewer of these symptoms as time passed.

Some of the women in the acupuncture group (about 25%) also said they had a better sex drive than they had – and they also said they felt more energized and thought more clearly than the medicated group.

"I think the data shows you that acupuncture is a good option for these patients [and] it has no side effects," said lead author Eleanor Walker of the director of breast services in the department of radiation oncology at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital.

Walker adds, however, that there are some drawbacks associated with the treatment: “[t]he issue most of the time is the cost of it and whether insurance companies will pay for it.” More research will be needed to evaluate the treatment more thoroughly and to determine how long−term management might work – that is, whether follow−up treatments would be necessary to extend the effect over time.

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