Can Acupuncture Reduce Hot Flashes in Breast Cancer Survivors?

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A recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology concluded that acupunctuure may be a viable treatment for women experiencing hot flashes as a result of estrogen-targeted therapies to treat breast cancer. Hot flashes in breast cancer survivors may be severe and frequent but the FDA-approved remedies such as hormone replacement therapies are not appropriate for breast cancer survivors because they include estrogen. The researchers say that “though most people associate hot flashes with menopause, the episodes also affect many breast cancer survivors who have low estrogen levels and often undergo premature menopause, following treatment with chemotherapy or surgery. ”

In the study the researchers included 120 breast cancer survivors who reported experiencing multiple hot flashes daily. These were randomly placed into four different intervention groups in order to analyze the effectiveness of an acupuncture technique  (electroacupuncture) in  which embedded needles deliver weak electric current and comparing results of this group with a group receiving an epilepsy drug gabapentin to determine effectiveness in reducing hot flashes.  . Gabapentin was previously shown to be effective in reducing hot flashes for these patients. The study continued eight weeks and subjects received either gabapentin 900 mg daily, or gabapentin placebo daily, or electroacupuncture twice weekly for 2 weeks and then one time a week, or a sham electroacupuncture in which there was no actual needle penetration or electric current.

After the eight weeks treatments, subjects in the electroacupuncture group demonstrated the greatest improvement in a standard measure (hot flash composite score) of hot flash  frequency and severity. It actually was 25% more effective than the next group on the standardized test. The next most effective group was the sham electroacupuncture followed by the gabapentin medication group and the placebo pill group was last. In addition, the electroacupuincture groups reported less side effects than either pill group. At sixteen weeks follow up the subjects who were in the two electroacupuncture groups reported a sustained and slightly deficit of hot flashes. In addition, the placebo group reported a slight improvement in hot flashes but the gabapentin pill group reported worsening hot flashes. The researchers said “Acupuncture is an exotic therapy, elicits the patient’s active participation, and involves a greater patient-provider interaction, compared with taking a pill.” Importantly, the results of this trial show that even sham acupuncture–which is effectively a placebo–is more effective than medication. The placebo effect is often dismissed as noise, but these results suggest we should be taking a closer look at how we can best harness it.”

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