Aromatase inhibitors have been very successful at stopping the spread of breast cancer that needs hormones to grow. The drugs work by stopping the production of estrogen. However, they can cause such severe pain that many people stop taking them. Breast cancer specialists say 50 percent of women taking aromatase inhibitors will experience pain – which can, at times, be excruciating.
Dr. John Erban, Clinical Director of the Tufts Cancer Center, estimates that about 20 to 25 percent of the people he treats with these aromatase inhibitors have to stop treatment because the side effects are so debilitating. Now, a new study from the Journal of The American Medical Association, or JAMA, suggests that acupuncture may help – at least for some women.
So, how does sticking a bunch of needles into your skin possibly relieve the side effects of cancer treatment? Acupuncture involves inserting very thin needles into strategic points in the body called “acupoints” in an effort to stimulate nerves, muscle, and connective tissue, essentially boosting the body’s natural painkillers. Acupuncture has been touted as a treatment for a handful of musculoskeletal issues.
The new study looked at postmenopausal women with early-stage breast cancer who were taking an aromatase inhibitor – and concluded that there was a reduction in joint pain for these women after six weeks. But, the improvement was small.
Even so, Dr. Erban says, “The problem [the study is] trying to address is an important one … many women stop their therapy that can be curative because of symptoms and side effects.”
There are a number of methods doctors turn to for someone who is suffering severe side effects from aromatase inhibitors including switching medications, increasing exercise, or incorporating anti-inflammatories into treatment. Dr. Erban says acupuncture is also worth considering.
“I certainly would recommend patients explore and consider acupuncture. The average benefit for any patient would be small – but that doesn’t mean it won’t have a dramatic benefit for a particular patient. I have seen patients who have a dramatic improvement,” Dr. Erban says.
In addition to the small benefit, there were some other limitations of the study, including the cost of the treatment and the length of the study.
“Outcomes are based on short-term results, and since the recommended course of treatment is for at least five years, it is important to see if effects are persistent,” says Dr. Marleen Meyers, a Medical Oncologist at NYU Perlmutter Cancer Center.
Still, Dr. Meyers tells SurvivorNet, “The early results do warrant further exploration of acupuncture as a non-pharmacologic therapy for aromatase inhibitor induced joint pain.”