WEDNESDAY, Dec. 30 (HealthDay News) -- Acupuncture is just as good as standard medication to ease hot flashes and other uncomfortable symptoms in women undergoing breast cancer treatment.
And as an added bonus, the needle treatment may boost the patient's sex drive and contribute to clearer thinking.
"I think the data shows you that acupuncture is a good option for these patients [and] it has no side effects," added Dr. Eleanor Walker, division director of breast services in the department of radiation oncology at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, and lead author of a study appearing online Dec. 28 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.
But another expert warned against taking the findings too seriously at this stage.
"It's provocative but the problem is it's a small number of patients and, having participated in research trials in vasomotor [hot flashes, night sweats, etc.] symptoms in women, it's a field that has a large placebo effect," said Dr. Jay Brooks, chairman of hematology/oncology at Ochsner Health System in Baton Rouge. "It needs to have a bigger trial."
Prior studies have shown that acupuncture can reduce hot flashes in postmenopausal women without breast cancer.
All of these studies, however, compared acupuncture to sham acupuncture, not to commonly used drugs, Walker noted. This is the first randomized controlled study to compare acupuncture alongside medication.
Many women with breast cancer receive anti-estrogen hormone therapy, usually for as long as five years, in addition to other treatments.
Although hormone therapy is effective in reducing tumor recurrence, it does cause hot flashes and night sweats.
The antidepressant Effexor (venlafaxine) is the most commonly used therapy for relieving these symptoms, but the drug brings its own problems, namely dry mouth, reduced appetite, nausea and constipation.
"We need something that's accessible that doesn't add adverse effects," Walker said.
For this study, 50 women with breast cancer were randomly assigned to receive 12 weeks of acupuncture (twice a week for four weeks then once a week) or daily Effexor. They were followed for a year.
Initially, both groups of women experienced similar reductions (about 50 percent) in hot flashes and depression, with an overall improvement in quality of life.
But the acupuncture benefits were longer lived. Two weeks out, women taking the antidepressant saw a resurgence in hot flashes while women in the acupuncture arm continued to have far fewer problems.
About 25 percent of women receiving acupuncture also reported more interest in sex while many also reported more energy and clearer thinking.
How might acupuncture work its magic? One expert had a theory.
Acupuncture operates as a balancing mechanism, said Janet Konefal, a licensed acupuncturist and assistant dean of complementary and integrative medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. "It is a regulator for the systems of the body," she explained. "It doesn't add or take anything -- it simply increases activity or decreases activity depending upon the points used. In this situation, it helped regulate the endocrine system, thus helping to balance the activity of hormones, neurotransmitters, and other biochemical reactions that regulate the body."
However, getting access to the treatment can be problematic, Walker said. "The issue most of the time is the cost of it and whether insurance companies will pay for it," she said. Additional studies also need to look at how often women would need booster acupuncture to minimize their symptoms.
There's more on breast cancer treatments at the U.S. National Cancer Institute.
SOURCES: Eleanor M. Walker, M.D., division director of breast services, department of radiation oncology, Henry Ford Hospital, Detroit; Janet Konefal, licensed acupuncturist and assistant dean, complementary and integrative medicine, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine; Jay Brooks, M.D., chairman, hematology/oncology, Ochsner Health System, Baton Rouge; Dec. 28, 2009, Journal of Clinical Oncology, online