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Acupuncture reduces hot flashes, sweats in breast cancer patients

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By David Liu

Therapeutic effects of acupuncture are rarely recognized. If there is any, it is often labeled as some placebo effect. One study reported in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, however, has suggested that acupuncture is as effective as drug therapy in reducing hot flashes in breast cancer patients.

The study led by Eleanor Walker, M.D. from Henry Ford Hospital and colleagues showed that compared to drug treatments, acupuncture has a longer lasting effect on the reduction of hot flashes and night sweats in breast cancer patients receiving hormone therapy.

Acupuncture was also found to improve patients' energy and clarity of thought.  An additional benefit is that this Chinese medicine boosted sex drive in 25 percent of women who received the treatment.

Breast cancer patients are often advised to undergo hormone therapy for five years after surgery in addition to chemotherapy. The conventional treatments cause side effects including vasomotor symptom - hot flashes and night sweats.

One drug called venlafaxine or effexor is designed to suppress the side effects.  However, this treatment by itself causes a set of side effects including dry mouth, decreased appetite, nausea and constipation.

The researchers know that acupuncture is effective in reducing hot flashes in menopausal women. They figured that the same ancient medical technique may also help breast cancer patients.  They wanted to compare acupuncture to the medication for their efficacy of managing the side effects experienced by breast cancer patients. 

In the study, 50 breast cancer patients were randomly given acupuncture or venlafaxine treatment for 12 weeks. One group took the drug each night in a dose of 37.5 mg for the first week and then 75 mg for the remaining 11 weeks. Another group received acupuncture twice a week for the first four weeks and then once a week for the remaining eight weeks.

All treatments discontinued at the end of 12 weeks and patients were then followed for one year to monitor their overall health and mental health.

Study participants receiving either treatment were found to initially experience a 50 percent reduction in hot flashes and depression, meaning acupuncture was as effective as drug therapy.

The difference as the researchers observed is that breast cancer patients who received acupuncture treatment experienced minimal hot flashes after stoppage of the treatment while those who took the drug therapy experienced an increase after they stopped taking the drug.

Breast cancer is diagnosed in about 175,000 women each year in the United States and the disease and its complications kill about 50,000 annually, according to the National Cancer Institute.

(This is an updated version)

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