Painful joints is a known side effect of a group of drugs called Aromatase inhibitors (AI) which are a common treatment for hormone sensitive breast cancers in post-menopausal women.  Treating this pain effectively, without the use of other drugs or painkillers has been high on the priority list of cancer specialists for some time.

A recent study, which is the largest and most rigorous of its kind, found that acupuncture may significantly reduce the debilitating joint pain experienced by tens of thousands of women each year who are being treated for the early stages of breast cancer.

The Global cancer clinical trials network, led by the Southwest Oncology Group (SWOG) and funded by the National Cancer Institute, carried out a random and blind multicentre trial to establish whether acupuncture is effective in alleviating the pain caused by AI’s.

Dr Dawn Hershman, the lead researcher of the study and a SWOG vice chair “Some of my patients have difficulty getting out of a chair.  As a result, with no good treatment options for their pain and stiffness, many women stop their cancer treatment. This is probably the most commonly cited reason breast cancer patients stop taking AI medication. So we need a solution – one that doesn’t include opioids or drugs that can be addictive or have serious side effects. We want women to continue their cancer treatment and have a good quality of life.”

Hershman and her team’s trial consisted of 226 patients from 11 cancer centres nationwide and patients were randomly assigned to one of three groups. One group received true acupuncture.  Another received sham acupuncture; this is a method of superficially inserting needles in different, non-therapeutic locations on the body. Finally, another group received no treatment at all.

Patients got twice-weekly treatments for six weeks, then a weekly maintenance treatment for another six weeks. Patients reported on their pain before, during, and after treatment.

Results showed that, on average, patients experienced less pain when they received acupuncture compared with the sham and treatment-free arms. Patients experienced relief for 24 week.

“This work strongly shows that true acupuncture provides better outcomes for women,” said Dr. Katherine Crew, a SWOG executive officer “I expect this work to influence medical practice.”

Reference: Greenlee, H. et al. J. Acupunct. Meridian Stud8, 152–158 (2015).(Read Abstract)

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