Acupuncture may help ease hot flashes for breast cancer patients

April 12, 2016 | by City of Hope

Acupuncture may help alleviate the debilitating hot flashes often experienced by breast cancer patients undergoing treatment, according to a new Italian study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

"Almost all women [being treated for breast cancer] experience them,” said City of Hope breast oncology surgeon Courtney Vito, M.D., who commented on the study in Health Day. “For some, it's a moderate situation, but for others it's a really significant problem. Some women — I would say probably about 15 percent — have such severe hot flashes that they even refuse to take medications that can cut their risk for cancer or cancer recurrence by 50 percent, simply because they can't handle the hot flashes."

Giorgia Razzini, study author and clinical trial project manager in the oncology unit of Ospedale di Carpi (Carpi Hospital) in Bologna, Italy, and colleagues noted that breast cancer patients tend to suffer from longer, more intense hot flashes, which can’t be treated with hormone replacement therapy. But, they found that pairing weekly acupuncture sessions with “lifestyle advice” – including dieting and exercise recommendations, for instance – dramatically improved the women's quality of life.

"Acupuncture together with enhanced self-care for three months is effective in reducing hot flashes in women with breast cancer." Such treatment could help patients "stay on their therapy and improve their quality of life.” Giorgia Razzini

The Italian study focused on 190 breast cancer patients, average age 49, who reported moderate or worse hot flashes while undergoing cancer treatment at six different Italian facilities between 2010 and 2013.

The patients were randomly split into two groups: One received a three-month regimen that included diet and exercise advice, as well as psychological support. The second group received the same advice plus 10 weekly half-hour sessions of acupuncture.

All study participants kept diaries to assess daily hot flash experiences. By the end of the three-month period, those in the acupuncture group had hot flash scores 50 percent lower than those in the nonacupuncture group.

Razzini cited several reasons for acupuncture's apparent efficacy, including its ability to prompt blood vessel dilation in the patient's nervous system while stimulating the release of endorphins, neurotransmitters involved in the regulation of pain and emotion.

"Compared to other effective treatments such as antidepressants, [acupuncture] should be less expensive, and, for sure, more safe and feasible,” Razzini said.

Vito, assistant clinical professor, Division of Surgical Oncology, sees additional benefit in the findings. “Anyone who treats breast cancer struggles with this problem in their practice, because the hot flashes that some women experience with anti-hormonal treatment can be profound,” she said.

"I've actually had patients who have had acupuncture with good success, so I'm not surprised by the finding. But it is heartening that we now have scientific proof that this can work. Which, in the end, may help to encourage insurance companies to expand their coverage so this can become an affordable option for all patients in need." Courtney Vito, M.D.


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