Acupuncture may help ease hot flashes in women with breast cancer who often can't take traditional hormone treatments, according to a new study from Italy.
"Women with breast cancer should know that acupuncture together with enhanced self care for at least three months can improve hot flashes with an overall benefit on their quality of life," said study author Giorgia Razzini of Civil Hospital in Carpi. "This approach is safe and feasible as well."
Hot flashes are more severe and last longer in women with breast cancer, the researchers write in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. Breast cancer patients who can't take hormone replacement therapy for hot flashes are left with few options.
Between 2010 and 2013, the researchers randomly assigned 190 women with breast cancer to receive 10 traditional Chinese acupuncture sessions over 12 weeks, plus an informational booklet about enhancing self-care, or just the self-care booklet alone.
Half the women were over age 49.
By the end of the treatments, hot flash scores - the frequency of hot flashes multiplied by their severity - were significantly lower among the women in the acupuncture group.
The enhanced self-care group's average hot flash score was about 23 at the end of treatment, compared to about 11 in the acupuncture group. The difference would be noticeable, Razzini told Reuters Health in an email.
The difference in hot flash scores between the two groups remained significant three and six months after treatment, the researchers found.
Women who received acupuncture also experienced a better quality of life than those in the enhanced self-care group.
Twelve of the 85 women in acupuncture group reported mild side effects like muscle pain and headache. No serious side effects were reported.
The researchers advise healthcare providers to be cautious about recommending acupuncture if they have already prescribed antidepressants for hot flashes.
Antidepressants "have been demonstrated to be effective in managing hot flashes and in our trial they were not allowed," said Razzini.
Dr. Jun Mao, who was not involved with the new study, agreed that it's unclear how acupuncture compares to other types of treatments.
"I think the results are very promising suggesting - compared to usual care - acupuncture can improve hot flash symptoms and several areas of quality of life," said Mao, chief of the Integrative Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
He said the new study can't say why acupuncture improves hot flash symptoms, but previous research - including his own - suggests that the benefits may be from the procedure itself and engaging people in healthcare.
"I think it is gradually being introduced into many cancer centers in the U.S. for managing hot flashes in women with breast cancer," he said. However, he added, insurance may not cover it.