acupuncture for cancer treatmentCancer patients often describe the treatments as being as difficult to bear as the disease itself. The highly potent medications needed to treat the disease can wreak havoc on the entire body, not just the site of the cancer. The results of a recent clinical trial may offer the hope of relief from the distresses of cancer drugs by the experience of acupuncture.

Dr. Ting Bao, lead researcher for the study, describes acupuncture as a medical procedure that’s been used for many thousands of years. She also says significant benefits are possible without much risk of adverse effects. Bao is a medical oncologist at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.

Acupuncture’s origins are generally thought to be Chinese but archaeological evidence suggests a rudimentary form of acupuncture might have been practiced as long ago as the Stone Age. The clinical trials around which much of modern Western medicine is based have provided inconclusive evidence as to the documentable value of acupuncture for various ailments and diseases.

For Bao’s trial, 47 breast cancer patients were recruited for a randomized test of acupuncture to relieve the unpleasant menopausal symptoms often associated with the drugs commonly used to treat breast cancer. Half of the study participants received traditional acupuncture therapies once a week for eight weeks. The other half of the study underwent “sham” acupuncture procedures which involved the application of needles, as expected, but they were placed in areas not known to produce an effect.

Neither the patients nor the research team knew which women were getting true acupuncture treatments and which were getting placebo treatments. All study participants kept a diary describing their symptoms - hot flashes, night sweats, etc. - on a daily basis. They also completed several questionnaires over the course of the study.

All study participants reported relief from the symptoms, with relief from hot flashes being the most improved. The results were the same whether a woman got true acupuncture or the sham treatment, leading to the conclusion that it is the experience of acupuncture that brought relief.

According to Bao, it’s possible the experience of pricking the skin with the acupuncture needles, regardless of where they are placed, may cause physiological changes that relieved the symptoms.

Some breast cancer drugs reduce estrogen and, coincidentally, produce the symptoms of menopause. Women and men who take estrogen-lowering drugs to treat other conditions often report menopause-like symptoms, too.

The findings of the Bao study indicate that, if the experience of acupuncture can relieve the symptoms of menopause in breast cancer patients taking estrogen-lowering drugs, it might produce the same desirable effects when other people choose acupuncture in conjunction with estrogen-lowering medications taken for a variety of medical reasons.

Source: Bao, Ting, MD, et al. “Patient-reported outcomes in women with breast cancer enrolled in a dual-center, double-blind, randomized controlled trial assessing the effect of acupuncture in reducing aromatase inhibitor-induced musculoskeletal symptoms.” Cancer / Wiley Online Library. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Dec 23, 2013. Web. Dec 31, 2013.