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Acupuncture to Treat Hot Flashes Instead of Drug Therapy?

Expert Analysis Highlights:

  • There is some evidence, although somewhat controversial, that acupuncture can be effective in reducing frequency of hot flashes
  • A small, 12-week study concluded “Acupuncture appears to be equivalent to drug therapy…”
  • A large, 4-week study did not demonstrate a statistically significant reduction of hot flashes
  • However, the 4-week study concluded: “We cannot exclude the possibility that a longer and more intense acupuncture intervention could produce a larger reduction of these symptoms.”

Hot flashes can be a debilitating condition for cancer patients who are being treated with chemotherapy or hormone therapy. This includes women with breast cancer and men with prostate cancer. I have written about this condition previously, including a listing of various medications that can be taken to reduce the frequency and intensity of hot flashes. (for more information, read Study May Help Cool Hot Flashes for Cancer Patients).

There is some evidence, although somewhat controversial, that acupuncture can be effective in women…and in men…who suffer from hot flashes. In a scientific study conducted at Henry Ford Hospital and published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology (February 1, 2010; vol. 28:pages 634-40; abstract listed below), 50 breast cancer patients volunteered for a  randomized controlled trial that tested whether acupuncture reduces vasomotor symptoms and produces fewer adverse effects than venlafaxine (Effexor), a commonly used drug for hot flashes. The investigators concluded that: “Acupuncture appears to be equivalent to drug therapy in these patients. It is a safe, effective and durable treatment for vasomotor symptoms secondary to long-term antiestrogen hormone use in patients with breast cancer.”

However, the evidence for acupuncture is not compelling. For example a slightly larger study from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in 2007 did not convincingly demonstrate that acupuncture worked (J Clin Oncol. 2007 Dec 10; volume25:page 5584). They concluded: “Hot flash frequency in breast cancer patients was reduced following acupuncture. However, when compared with sham acupuncture, the reduction by the acupuncture regimen as provided in the current study did not reach statistical significance. We cannot exclude the possibility that a longer and more intense acupuncture intervention could produce a larger reduction of these symptoms.” This is an important point, since the positive Detroit trial administered acupuncture for 12 weeks while the New York trial was only 4 weeks in duration. FYI, sham acupuncture is a commonly used control group using techniques that are not intended to stimulate known acupuncture points.

While the evidence about the value of acupuncture treatments for refractory hot flashes are still preliminary, there seems to be enough potential value for this to be considered as an adjunct to conventional treatments for hot flashes, as described in previous blogs (for more information, read Study May Help Cool Hot Flashes for Cancer Patients). More research on this subject is needed.

Please read the abstracts below for more information. An interesting small study about acupuncture for hot flashes was recently reported in men with prostate cancer who were receiving hormone therapy (abstract listed below).

Acupuncture for Hot Flashes in Patients With Prostate Cancer.

Beer TM, Benavides M, Emmons SL, Hayes M, Liu G, Garzotto M, Donovan D, Katovic N, Reeder C, Eilers K.

Division of Hematology and Medical Oncology, Oregon Health and Science University, Portland, Oregon.

Urology. 2010 May 20. [Epub ahead of print]

Abstract

OBJECTIVES: To determine the effect of acupuncture on hot flash frequency and intensity, quality of life, and sleep quality in patients undergoing hormonal therapy for prostate cancer. Hot flashes are a common adverse effect of hormonal therapy for prostate cancer. METHODS: Men who had a hot flash score >4 who were receiving androgen deprivation therapy for prostate cancer underwent acupuncture with electrostimulation biweekly for 4 weeks, then weekly for 6 weeks, using a predefined treatment plan. The primary endpoint was a 50% reduction in the hot flash score after 4 weeks of therapy, calculated from the patients’ daily hot flash diaries. The hot flash-related quality of life and sleep quality and biomarkers potentially related to hot flashes, including serotonin, calcitonin gene-related peptide, and urinary 5-hydroxyindoleacetic acid, were examined. RESULTS: A total of 25 men were enrolled from September 2003 to April 2007. Of these, 22 were eligible and evaluable. After 4 weeks, 9 (41%, 95% confidence interval 21%-64%) of 22 patients had had a >50% reduction in the hot flash score. Of the 22 patients, 12 (55%, 95% confidence interval 32%-76%) met this response definition at any point during the therapy course. No patient had a significant increase in hot flash score during therapy. A reduced hot flash score was associated with improvement in the hot flash-related quality of life and sleep quality. CONCLUSIONS: Multiple placebo-controlled trials have demonstrated a 25% response rate to placebo treatment for hot flashes. Of the 22 patients, 41% had responded by week 4 and 55% overall in the present pilot study, providing evidence of a potentially meaningful benefit. Additional studies of acupuncture for hot flashes in this population are warranted. Copyright © 2010 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Acupuncture versus venlafaxine for the management of vasomotor symptoms in patients with hormone receptor-positive breast cancer: a randomized controlled trial.

Walker EM, Rodriguez AI, Kohn B, Ball RM, Pegg J, Pocock JR, Nunez R, Peterson E, Jakary S, Levine RA.

Department of Radiation Oncology, Henry Ford Hospital, Detroit, MI 48202, USA. [email protected]

J Clin Oncol. 2010 Feb 1;28(4):634-40. Epub 2009 Dec 28.

Abstract

PURPOSE: Vasomotor symptoms are common adverse effects of antiestrogen hormone treatment in conventional breast cancer care. Hormone replacement therapy is contraindicated in patients with breast cancer. Venlafaxine (Effexor), the therapy of choice for these symptoms, has numerous adverse effects. Recent studies suggest acupuncture may be effective in reducing vasomotor symptoms in menopausal women. This randomized controlled trial tested whether acupuncture reduces vasomotor symptoms and produces fewer adverse effects than venlafaxine (Effexor). PATIENTS AND METHODS: Fifty patients were randomly assigned to receive 12 weeks of acupuncture (n = 25) or venlafaxine (n = 25) treatment. Health outcomes were measured for up to 1 year post-treatment. RESULTS: Both groups exhibited significant decreases in hot flashes, depressive symptoms, and other quality-of-life symptoms, including significant improvements in mental health from pre- to post-treatment. These changes were similar in both groups, indicating that acupuncture was as effective as venlafaxine. By 2 weeks post-treatment, the venlafaxine group experienced significant increases in hot flashes, whereas hot flashes in the acupuncture group remained at low levels. The venlafaxine group experienced 18 incidences of adverse effects (eg, nausea, dry mouth, dizziness, anxiety), whereas the acupuncture group experienced no negative adverse effects. Acupuncture had the additional benefit of increased sex drive in some women, and most reported an improvement in their energy, clarity of thought, and sense of well-being. CONCLUSION: Acupuncture appears to be equivalent to drug therapy in these patients. It is a safe, effective and durable treatment for vasomotor symptoms secondary to long-term antiestrogen hormone use in patients with breast cancer.

PMID: 20038728 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

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