Joint pain is a common side effect for women being treated with aromatase inhibitors for breast cancer. The treatment halts estrogen production in post-menopausal women, which means less of the hormone can fuel certain breast cancer cell growth.
While women often remedy the discomfort with painkillers, researchers wondered if acupuncture might also help. In a paper published in the March 1 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology, researchers enrolled 43 women in a randomized, blind study. The women were being treated with aromatase inhibitors for breast cancer and were also experiencing musculoskeletal pain.
Some were assigned to a true acupuncture group, in which joints were specifically targeted, and others were assigned to a sham acupuncture group, in which needles were inserted superficially into the skin in locations that were not real acupuncture points (this group served as a control for a potential placebo effect). Treatment went on for 12 sessions over six weeks.
Women were asked to rate the severity of their pain and its effect on daily functions, on a scale of 0 to 10. At the beginning of the study, the true acupuncture group's average pain rating was 6.7, and the sham group's was 5.6. After six weeks, the true acupuncture group rated their pain on average 3.0, and the sham group rated theirs 5.5.
In addition to seeing a significant decrease in the severity of their pain, the true acupuncture group also noticed improvement in their overall physical well-being.
"Since aromatase inhibitors have become an increasingly popular treatment option for some breast cancer patients, we aimed to find a non-drug option to manage the joint issues they often create, thereby improving quality of life and reducing the likelihood that patients would discontinue this potentially lifesaving treatment," said Dr. Dawn Hershman, senior author of the study, in a news release.
Hershman is the co-director of the breast cancer program at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, and an assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at Columbia University Medical Center.