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Fake Acupuncture Treatments Quell Breast Cancer Drug Side Effects

Update Date: Dec 23, 2013 12:10 PM EST

Acupuncture can help relieve side effects of breast cancer drugs, a new study suggests.

However, fake acupuncture treatment also helps alleviate side effects of breast cancer drugs.

Researchers said that the latest findings raise the question of whether acupuncture really has beneficial effects.

Patients who take a drug called an aromatase inhibitor (which inhibits the enzyme that produces estrogen in postmenopausal women) often feel joint/muscle pain and stiffness, and menopausal symptoms like hot flashes.

Lead researcher Ting Bao MD, DAMBA, MS, of the University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center in Baltimore, and her team studied 47 breast cancer survivors taking aromatase inhibitors and suffering from joint/muscle discomfort. Half of participants were given eight weekly acupuncture treatments, and the other half received a kind of fake (or "sham") acupuncture that involved non-penetrating retractable needles placed in sham acupoints (non-acupuncture points).

Both groups experienced improvement of their symptoms, especially hot flashes. However, researchers noted that there was little difference in benefits between the real acupuncture and the sham acupuncture.

"It could be that there is no difference, or it could be that in this small trial we just didn't have enough patients to detect a significant difference," Bao said in a news release.

Researchers noted that none of the patients reported significant side effects.

"This is important because other treatments for symptoms often do have side effects, so showing that this treatment works without side effects could be a big improvement in the treatment of cancer survivors," explained Bao.

While the study did not focus on racial differences, researchers found that African American women experienced a greater reduction in the severity and frequency of hot flashes if they had real acupuncture rather than sham acupuncture when compared to women of other ethnic groups.

"This kind of result is not definitive, but it does suggest that we should probably look further into the possibility that acupuncture may work better in some ethnicity groups than others," said Dr. Bao.

The findings are published in the journal CANCER.

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