“The true acupuncture and the sham acupuncture were very similar in schedule,” says Dr. Hershman. “Patients received the acupuncture or sham acupuncture twice a week for six weeks, and then once a week for an additional six weeks. Then they received no acupuncture, and we followed patients after the discontinuation of the intervention.”
The patients were monitored for another 12 weeks after stopping acupuncture treatments, and reported on their pain using various methods, including the BPI, over 24 weeks.
On average, patients who received true acupuncture reported experiencing less pain and stiffness — even after they stopped receiving acupuncture. After six weeks, patients in the true acupuncture treatment group reported significantly lower BPI “worst pain” by nearly a point compared with those who received sham acupuncture and no acupuncture.
The improvement in mean BPI “worst pain” score for those receiving true acupuncture remained significant compared with the other two groups’ scores over 24 weeks. The most common adverse event reported among those receiving true and sham acupuncture was bruising.
“The study shows that when assessing pain and stiffness, true acupuncture is effective in reducing pain: when it’s given twice a week, when it is maintained afterwards at once a week, and it is effective even after patients stop the acupuncture treatment,” says study co-investigator Dr. Katherine Crew, director of the Clinical Breast Cancer Prevention Program at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia and a SWOG executive officer.
According to Drs. Hershman and Crew, many patients don’t want to take additional medications to relieve symptoms caused by aromatase inhibitors.
“Our goal was to provide an alternative to pain medications to control this side effect,” says Dr. Hershman. “We have a huge problem in this country with pain medications, and it’s imperative to find alternative ways of controlling pain and discomfort so that individuals with breast cancer can stay on their treatment.”
Another of their aims was to underscore acupuncture’s utility so insurance companies would come to accept it as a legitimate form of pain management.
“In our healthcare system, acupuncture is not always paid for by insurances,” says Dr. Hershman. “And a major goal with conducting a large trial is to provide a level of evidence that can encourage insurance companies to consider supporting it as a reasonable care intervention.”
“There are so few side effects [to acupuncture] and it’s non-addictive,” says Dr. Crew. “This has real implications for patients in how patients can address their pain and the potential to improve their quality of life.”