University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine researchers have shown that acupuncture may be an effective way to treat hot flashes in breast cancer survivors.
Breast cancer survivors with low estrogen levels often succumb to premature menopause after chemotherapy or surgery. Episodes of hot flashes are typically intense and frequent, but FDA-approved treatments like hormone replacement therapies are not an option for breast cancer survivors who cannot be exposed to the estrogen in these drugs. The Journal of Clinical Oncology reports that acupuncture may provide a viable way to treat hot flashes.
Electroacupuncture Is No “Sham”
Researchers sought to discover how effectively electroacupuncture—an acupuncture technique in which embedded needles deliver weak electrical currents—can treat hot flashes compared to the epilepsy drug gabapentin, which has demonstrated prior efficacy.
Researchers separated 120 breast cancer survivors suffering from hot flashes into four different groups:
- Group 1: received 900 mg of gabapentin daily for 8 weeks
- Group 2: received a placebo of gabapentin daily for 8 weeks
- Group 3: received electroacupuncture 2 times a week for 2 weeks and then 1 time a week for the next 6 weeks
- Group 4: received sham electroacupuncture 2 times a week for 2 weeks and then 1 time a week for the next 6 weeks
Breast cancer survivors receiving acupuncture showed the most reduction in the severity and frequency of hot flashes as measured by the hot flash composite score (HFCS). The sham acupuncture measured the second best improvement (25% less than the actual acupuncture), followed by a daily dose of gabapentin, and finally by the placebo gabapentin.
Even more astounding is what scientists discovered 16 weeks post-treatment. Patients in the electroacupuncture and sham electroacupuncture groups showed maintained and even slightly improved lessening of hot flashes. Those who took the placebo pill also exhibited a slight improvement in hot flashes, while those who took gabapentin actually got worse!
Lead author Jun J. Mao, MD, MSCE, associate professor of Family Medicine and Community Health explains:
“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 medications. 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.”