Article published September 22, 2008 on NY Times Well Blog by Tara Parker-Pope

back pain relieved by needles

An acupuncturist inserts needles into a patient. (M. Spencer Green/AP)

Treatments for breast cancer can lead to unpleasant side effects for most women, including hot flashes, sweating and lack of energy. Now, new research suggests relief can come from an unconventional therapy — acupuncture.

Research from the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, presented this week at the American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology’s annual meeting in Boston, studied acupuncture use among 47 women who were receiving anti-estrogen treatments, including tamoxifen or anastrozole (Arimidex). The drugs are known to lower the risk of breast cancer recurrence, but they can trigger menopause-like symptoms, including hot flashes and night sweats. Half the women were given the antidepressant Effexor, which has been shown to reduce hot flashes in breast cancer patients. The other half received acupuncture therapy once or twice a week during the 12-week study.

The acupuncture worked just as well as the antidepressant Effexor to curb hot flashes. Women who received acupuncture also reported fewer side effects and more energy, and some reported an increased sex drive, compared to women who used Effexor, the study showed.

Dr. Eleanor M. Walker, director of breast radiation oncology at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, said that while she expected to see some benefits from acupuncture, the results were surprising.

“I was surprised by the duration of the effect,” Dr. Walker said in an interview. “I didn’t realize it would last so long or result in an increase in sex drive and energy. That was a surprise.”

Last year, a report in The Journal of Clinical Oncology suggested a benefit of acupuncture compared to a “sham” acupuncture treatment, but the results didn’t reach statistical significance.

Because the most recent study lasted only three months, it’s not clear how long the benefit of acupuncture lasts. The study authors said that more research is needed to find out if regular “booster” sessions after the initial treatment period will continue to relieve a woman’s symptoms.