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Dec 26, 2013 02:07 PM EST

'Sham' Acupuncture Treatments Can Ease Hot Flashes, Side Effects Of Breast Cancer Treatments


Real and sham acupuncture treatments can ease hot flashes and other side effects associated with drugs used to treat postmenopausal breast cancer patients, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Maryland Greene Cancer Center and the John Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center found that the sensation of skin pricks used to simulate genuine acupuncture needle sticks, sham treatments, might be enough to generate natural chemicals that improve symptoms linked to aromatase inhibitors (AI), drugs used to treat breast cancer, according to a press release.

AI blocks estrogen synthesis in postmenopausal patients causing moderate to severe hot flashes, similar to those experienced during menopause, and musculoskeletal problems, such as joint and muscle pain.

For the study, researchers selected 47 postmenopausal women with breast cancer stages 0 through 3 who have been receiving AI therapy for at least a month and who have reported some side effects to participate in their 12-week study.  

The study's participants were randomly assigned to receive eight weekly real or sham acupuncture treatments; 23 patients received real acupuncture and 24 received sham acupuncture, researchers said in a press release. During their treatments, the research team collected weekly hot-flash diaries during the first 8 weeks and in week 12. Other questionnaires addressing menopausal symptoms, mood, sleep quality, depression, anxiety and quality of life were collected at the study's start and four, eight and 12 weeks later.

Researchers found that among those receiving real acupuncture, there were "statistically significant" improvements in depression, hot-flash severity and frequency, hot flash-related daily interference and other menopausal symptoms. Among women receiving sham acupuncture, researchers saw improvements in quality of life, hot flash-related daily interference, and menopausal symptoms.

Women in both groups saw an average reduction in hot-flash severity of 31 percent to 54 percent, respectively, from the real and sham acupuncture treatments.

According to Vered Stearns, senior study author and co-director of the breast cancer program at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, this research underscores that there is a demand for more non-pharmacological interventions. Conventional hot-flash treatments include drugs, though their use is limited because of side effects.

"These women have had a lot of different treatments, and some really try to avoid additional medications," she said in a statement.

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