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OK, I’ll admit it…I have been a skeptic about the value of acupuncture for alleviating cancer treatment side effects like joint pain, hot flashes, fatigue, and so on. Scientists can’t explain it on physiological grounds…the pain-relieving properties, for example, may be mediated by release of neurotransmitters… and yet it appears to be beneficial in some patients. The video above and a recently published study are among the growing body of scientific research demonstrating the benefits of acupuncture in treating side effects that result from cancer treatment, such as hormone therapy for breast cancer.
The video above is about a clinical trial that demonstrated a 50% reduction in hot flashes for breast cancer patients suffering from this treatment side effect. For women with breast cancer, 80% suffer from hot flashes after receiving an anti-estrogen drug like Tamoxifen. Read more about “Breast Cancer Treatment with Femara (letrozole) and Tamoxifen.” Usually women are treated with estrogen to relieve hot flashes, but breast cancer patients can’t because estrogen increases the risk of cancer. Instead, they are given other medications such as Effexor, which is an anti-depressent that relieves hot flashes, but these drugs have side-effects of their own. Acupuncture gives the patient a non-pharmecutical option. The video points out that acupuncture is used for a variety of other side effects, such as stress and anxiety. I recently came across a study about significant pain relief using acupuncture for breast cancer patients taking a new class of hormone pills for which the side effect is joint pain and stiffness.
A new study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology (March 1, 2010) from Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons demonstrated a significant pain relief in postmenopausal breast cancer patients taking a new class of hormone pills called aromatase inhibitors (such as Arimidex, Femara, Aromasin) and who had joint pains or stiffness as a side effect of their medicine. Among 20 study patients, there was a significant improvement of joint pain and stiffness with acupuncture compared to a blinded, control group of 18 patients who randomly did not have acupuncture. While this is a relatively small study, the investigators used rigorous scientific methods and showed a 50 to 70% reduction in pain using standardized pain measures. In recent years, more rigorously controlled scientific studies have demonstrated that acupuncture is effective in the treatment of pain from knee arthritis and other musculoskeletal pains, and it is generally a safe and well-tolerated procedure in experienced hands.
This type of study is exactly the type of evidence that should be used more to clarify the indications for acupuncture and demonstrate its value as a complementary treatment in patients with cancer who are suffering from side effects of treatment. As the authors pointed out, acupuncture is often not used because of concern regarding the out of pocket expenditures associated with its use and the uncertainty regarding insurance coverage. Nevertheless, many third party payers are beginning to reimburse for this therapy on the basis of positive, evidence-based clinical trials.
If joint pains and stiffness are a significant side-effect of taking long-term hormone treatment with aromatase inhibitors as a component of your breast cancer treatments, or if you’re suffering from other side effects like hot flashes, talk to your doctor about whether acupuncture might be of benefit. Also, be sure to check with your insurance company about whether this pain-management approach could be reimbursed.