A study has found that the debilitating joint pain that many women receiving treatment for early stage breast cancer experience is significantly reduced with acupuncture. Tens of thousands of women each year receive treatment with aromatase inhibitor medication which stops estrogen production, essentially starving hormone receptor-positive breast cancer cells. It’s recommended for some women to take these pills daily for as long as 10 years. But joint stiffness and pain is a side effect of this treatment which is experienced by as many as 50% of women . Hips, knees, wrists and hands are affected, making it difficult to sit, walk, climb stairs, and even perform simple tasks such as driving or typing. Effective treatment of this pain without using opioids is a top priority for cancer research.
A multi-center randomized trial was conducted to determine if acupuncture would be effective in relieving pain as a result of aromatase inhibitors, a commonly used treatment for breast cancers that are hormone sensitive. Some patients struggle to get out of a chair, and as a result, without any safe and effective treatment options for their stiffness and pain, many women stop their cancer treatment. This is probably the most common reason why breast cancer patients stop taking aromatase inhibitor medication. So a solution was needed that doesn’t include addictive opioid drugs that have serious side effects.
According to the lead researcher, a lot of women do not want to take pills for the side-effects of other pills. Acupuncture had already shown promise in a previous single-center study, and for this current study, 226 patients were enrolled from 11 cancer centers nationwide. The participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups, one group that received true acupuncture, another group that received sham acupuncture, which involved the superficial inserting of needles into different, non-therapeutic places on the body. And another group received that received no treatment at all.
Participants received treatments twice a week for 6 weeks, after which they received a weekly maintenance treatment for a further 6 weeks. Making use of various methods, participants reported on their pain before, during, and after treatment. The key indicator for the study was the level of worst pain at the end of the first 6 weeks of treatment making use of the Brief Pain Inventory, a patient-reported measure. Results showed that, on average, participants experienced less pain on the acupuncture group in comparison to the sham and treatment-free groups.