7 December 2017

An abstract presented at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium found that acupuncture can be very helpful in patients who develop joint pains related to aromatase inhibitor (AI) treatment.

The study evaluated the use of acupuncture in post-menopausal women who had been treated for early stage breast cancer. 226 patients were enrolled. 110 underwent true acupuncture, 59 underwent sham acupuncture (needles inserted very superficially into non-treatment points) and 57 patients were placed on a waitlist (did not receive any treatment). Patients treated with true or sham acupuncture were treated twice a week for 6 weeks, followed by weekly sessions for 6 weeks. After 6 weeks, patients in the true acupuncture group had significantly lower pain scores compared to the other 2 groups. Even though the intervention was for 12 weeks, the significant improvement in pain scores for the patients treated with true acupuncture held up for 24 weeks. The primary adverse effect reported in the true and sham acupuncture groups was bruising.

AIs are a form of endocrine therapy, important in the treatment of estrogen receptor positive breast cancer. While they can significantly reduce the risk of recurrence, they are associated with a variable incidence of side effects including joint / muscle pains and hot flashes. Some women find the pains decrease after a few months of treatment. Weight loss (if overweight) and regular moderate exercise can help with symptoms. However, anywhere from 10-30% of patients stop their medications early due to negative impacts on quality of life.

A caution regarding these results is that they were presented in abstract, or preliminary form – a full paper with complete results has not yet been published. However, as acupuncture has very few side effects and is well tolerated by many patients, there seems to be little downside to trying a course of therapy if joint pains develop on endocrine therapy.