Women's Health

How Acupuncture Can Ease Breast Cancer Pain

How Acupuncture Can Ease Breast Cancer Pain

Each year, thousands and thousands of breast cancer survivors are prescribed aromatase inhibitors, which are the most common and most effective medications used to prevent and to treat early-stage breast cancer. However, a majority of women choose not to take them because they can trigger side effects, including severe joint pain and stiffness.

New research findings presented at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium suggest that acupuncture may ease severe joint pain and stiffness associated with taking these potentially life-saving medications. Acupuncture is a traditional technique that involves the insertion of thin needles through the skin in order to stimulate specific points in the body. In Chinese medicine, it is believed that vital energy, known as qi, flows throughout the body and it is connected by acupuncture points. If the qi becomes blocked, acupuncture can help to open certain points in the body and release the blocked energy.

Acupuncture and pain

Previous studies have also shown that acupuncture may help alleviate fatigue, nausea and vomiting, hot flashes, and pain. “Acupuncture has been around for thousands of years and has no real downside. If something so simple as acupuncture can improve upon these symptoms and the patients' quality of life, we will have more women becoming compliant in taking their medication, and one would expect improved outcomes,” said Dr. Lauren Cassell, chief of breast surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

Researchers have even come up with a name for the condition - aromatase inhibitor–associated musculoskeletal syndrome or AIMSS. “People don’t want to take a medication that causes its own side effects to treat the side effects of another medication and in this country right now, we want to do everything we can to avoid prescribing opioids, especially on a long-term basis,” said Dr. Dawn Hershman, lead author of the study and head of the Breast Cancer Program at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. Unfortunately, the pain associated with AIMSS may become so severe that it can make it difficult for women to walk, sit, climb stairs or drive a car. “Two-thirds of all breast cancers are hormone receptor-positive, and the treatment for it is to lower estrogen levels with aromatase inhibitors. Despite the well-proven effectiveness of this treatment, many patients experience side effects that cause them to miss treatments or stop their therapy altogether. By controlling side effects and keeping patients on their medication, we may be able to improve breast cancer outcomes,” she added.

Dr. Hersman and her fellow colleagues monitored 226 women in post menopause with early stage breast cancer who were taking aromatase inhibitors, including Arimidex, Aromasin, Femara and others. The research team wondered if acupuncture could help ease the side effects associated with AIMSS. Out of the 226 participants, the women were divided into three groups: 110 received true acupuncture, 59 received fake acupuncture, and 57 were put on a waiting list. The participants undergoing the true and fake acupuncture underwent two sessions per week for a period of 6 weeks, followed by one session per week for an additional 6 weeks. 

Read on to learn about the results and how acupuncture can help ease breast cancer pain.