A small study found that 12 weeks of acupuncture provided the same relief from hot flashes related to breast cancer treatment as Effexor (chemical name: venlafaxine), an antidepressant medicine.
Hormonal therapy often is used after surgery and other treatments to lower the risk of hormone-receptor-positive, early-stage breast cancer coming back (recurring) in post-menopausal women. Hormonal therapy works by lowering the amount of estrogen in the body or by blocking estrogen's effect on cancer cells. Reducing the amount of estrogen or blocking its effects can cause hot flashes during treatment. Besides hot flashes, hormonal therapy also may cause sleeping problems, moodiness, and an overall lower quality of life. Doctors sometimes call hot flashes and related side effects "vasomotor symptoms." Naturally-occurring menopause often is accompanied by these same troubling vasomotor symptoms.
Antidepressants such as Effexor are used sometimes to ease severe hot flashes.
In this study, 47 women diagnosed with early-stage, hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer were treated with either tamoxifen or an aromatase inhibitor. All the women were having hot flashes and other side effects related to the hormonal therapy. Some of the women got Effexor for 12 weeks to ease the hot flashes. The other women got acupuncture twice a week for 4 weeks and then once a week for the next 8 weeks. All the women kept a hot flash and quality of life diary during the 12 weeks of treatment.
- Effexor and acupuncture were equally good in improving the women's quality of life:
- hot flashes were less severe and less frequent
- other menopausal symptoms also were eased
- moodiness and overall quality of life improved
- Some women who took Effexor had significant side effects from the medicine, including nausea, dry mouth, headache, sleeping problems, dizziness, vision problems, higher blood pressure, fatigue, and anxiety.
- None of the women who got acupuncture had side effects from the treatment. Some women reported other positive effects from acupuncture, including more energy, clearer thinking, increased sexual desire, and a better sense of well-being.
- Only 2 weeks after they stopped taking Effexor, those women reported an increase in the number and severity of hot flashes.
- Women who got acupuncture didn't report an increase in the number and severity of hot flashes until 3 to 4 months after the acupuncture treatments were done.
While acupuncture appears to ease hot flashes, it's not clear how the treatment works.
If you're having hot flashes because of breast cancer treatment and are considering medical treatment or have taken an antidepressant that didn't help or caused side effects, you might want to talk to your doctor about this study. Acupuncture is one of several complementary and holistic medicine techniques that have been shown to help women deal with menopausal or treatment-related hot flashes. Other techniques include yoga, massage, and meditation.
You can read more about treatments to help ease hot flashes on the Breastcancer.org All About Hot Flashes page and you can learn more about acupuncture in the Complementary and Holistic Medicine section.