Aromatase inhibitors are one of the most commonly used treatments for breast cancer. Over a period of five to ten years, these drugs lower estrogen levels and reduce the risk that the cancer will occur. However, side effects include arthritis-like pain. Where there is pain, there is concern over the use of pain-relief drugs, particularly those that are opioid-based. With women refusing to take the medication regularly, or at all, oncologists like Dawn Hershman have begun trials to investigate whether acupuncture could help to reduce the pain caused by the treatment.
Hershman practices oncology at Columbia University Medical Centre in New York City, where she conducted her first trial. After achieving positive results, Hershman and her colleagues conducted a larger trial of real and sham acupuncture with 226 women, who were placed into one of three groups, at 11 different cancer centers across the United States. The results were presented on December 7 at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium in Texas.
Of the three groups, only one received real acupuncture. A second group had needles inserted at non-acupunctures (areas that are not acupuncture points), less deeply into the skin. This is known as sham acupuncture. The third group received no treatment. The women were asked to record their pain levels. After six weeks, the worst pain recorded by women in the first group was reported as one point lower, on a scale from zero to ten, than those in the other groups. Compared to antidepressants used to help reduce pain in cancer patients, this is a statistically significant change. Most impressively, the percentage of participants whose pain improved by at least two points was almost double that of those in both control groups.
Acupuncture is a complementary therapy for pain relief. That is how most experts see it. Rollin Gallagher, director of pain-policy research at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and editor-in-chief of the journal Pain Medicine, says that many studies suggest that acupuncture triggers neurophysiological changes that are relevant to pain in conditions ranging from carpal tunnel syndrome to fibromyalgia.
The conclusion regarding acupuncture is that it provides a reasonable alternative to prescription medications. Nearly 90% of US National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers recommends that their patients try acupuncture. Over 70% offer it as a treatment for side effects. By integrating acupuncture into mainstream medical care, the treatment is further legitimized and unregulated, unscientific practitioners are beginning to fade in prominence. Most importantly, it is keeping patients on their medication and improving their quality of life.