When it comes to easing the side effects of certain breast cancer drugs, acupuncture may work no better than a “sham” version of the technique, a small trial suggests.
Breast cancer drugs known as aromatase inhibitors often cause side effects such as muscle and joint pain, as well as hot flashes and other menopause-like symptoms. And in the new study, researchers found that women who received either real acupuncture or a sham variation saw a similar improvement in those side effects over eight weeks.
“That suggests that any benefit from the real acupuncture sessions resulted from a placebo effect,” said Dr. Patricia Ganz, a cancer specialist at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine who was not involved in the study.
The placebo effect, which is seen in treatment studies of all kinds, refers to the phenomenon where some people on an inactive “therapy” get better.
However, it’s difficult to know what to make of the current findings, in part because the study was so small, said Ganz, who studies quality-of-life issues in cancer patients.
“I just don’t think you can come to any conclusions,” she said.
Practitioners of acupuncture insert thin needles into specific points in the body to bring about therapeutic effects such as pain relief. According to traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture works by stimulating certain points on the skin believed to affect the flow of energy, or “qi” (pronounced “chee”), through the body.
The study, published online Dec. 23 in the journal Cancer, included 47 women who were on aromatase inhibitors for early-stage breast cancer. Aromatase inhibitors include the drugs anastrozole (Arimidex), letrozole (Femara) and exemestane (Aromasin). They help lower the body’s level of estrogen, which fuels tumor growth in most women with breast cancer.
Half were randomly assigned to a weekly acupuncture session for eight weeks; the other half had sham acupuncture sessions, which involved retractable needles.
Overall, women in both groups reported an improvement in certain drug side effects, such as hot flash severity. But there were no clear differences between the two groups. And in an earlier study, the researchers found the same pattern when they focused on the side effect of muscle and joint pain.
Dr. Ting Bao, who led the study, agreed that “you could conclude that it’s a placebo effect.”
On the other hand, it’s also difficult to design a placebo version of acupuncture, said Bao, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.
Read more: MedlinePlus