Anticancer drugs are known to cause an array of side effects for cancer patients. But new research suggests that both real and “sham” acupuncture treatments could help mitigate the side effects of these drugs for breast cancer patients. This is according to a study published in the journal Cancer.

Researchers from the University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center in Baltimore, MD, led by Dr. Ting Bao, say their findings may help doctors improve the care of their cancer patients.

Additionally, they note that it raises the question as to whether sham acupuncture is ineffective, or whether it provides benefits like real acupuncture.

To reach their findings, the investigators analyzed 47 breast cancer survivors who were taking aromatase inhibitors – a type of hormonal therapy for breast and ovarian cancer that blocks the production of estrogen in body tissues to prevent the cancer from coming back.

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Researchers say their study revealed that both real and sham acupuncture improved the side effects of anticancer drugs for breast cancer patients.

All patients were suffering from stiffness and joint and muscle pain as a side effect of the therapy.

Around 50% of the patients received eight weekly acupuncture treatments, while the remaining patients received sham acupuncture.

The fake acupuncture involved the use of non-penetrating retractable needles that were placed in non-acupuncture points.

All patients were required to keep a “hot flash” diary. These were used to measure the extent to which side effects of the aromatase inhibitors interfered with patients’ daily life activities, including work, leisure activities, sleep, mood, concentration, sexuality, relations with others, enjoyment of life and overall quality of life.

The patients also self-reported the severity of their side effects at the baseline of the study, and at 4, 8 and 12 weeks following the start of acupuncture treatments.

Results of the study revealed that both groups of patients showed significant improvements in the severity of their side effects, as well as a significant reduction in interference with their daily life activities.

The researchers say they found very little difference in the 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,” says Dr. Bao.

Furthermore, the researchers say that patients showed no side effects from either acupuncture treatment.

Dr. Bao adds:

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.”

However, the researchers point out that upon looking at racial differences, they found that the real acupuncture treatment improved the severity and frequency of side effects much more in African American women than the sham treatment, when compared with non-African American women.

The investigators say this finding may be important, as it suggests that acupuncture could be more effective in some ethnic groups over others.

More research is needed involving a larger group of patients, the researchers say, in order to further determine the benefits of acupuncture for breast cancer patients.

Medical News Today recently reported on a study suggesting that older breast cancer survivors can benefit from exercise programs.