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Acupuncture Seems to Help Ease Pain, Nausea, Anxiety After Mastectomy

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A very small study suggests that acupuncture can reduce pain, nausea, and anxiety after mastectomy better than standard care. Women who received acupuncture also were better able to cope with things the first day after surgery than women who received usual care.

The study was published in Oncology Nursing Forum on Nov. 30, 2016. Read the abstract of “Assessing the Impact of Acupuncture on Pain, Nausea, Anxiety, and Coping in Women Undergoing a Mastectomy.”

In acupuncture, sterile, hair-thin needles are inserted into specific points on the skin, called "acupuncture points," and then gently moved. Researchers propose that acupuncture stimulates the nervous system to release natural painkillers and immune system cells. They then travel to weakened areas of the body and relieve symptoms.

In this study, done at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, Minn., 30 women who were having mastectomy to remove breast cancer were randomly assigned to one of two treatments after surgery:

  • two hospital-based acupuncture sessions, at least 12 hours apart
  • usual care, which included monitoring by hospital staff and medicines to ease pain and/or nausea if a woman said she was experiencing those side effects

The researchers asked the women to rate their levels of pain, nausea, anxiety, and ability to cope on a scale of 0 to 10 immediately before and after receiving acupuncture. The researchers visited the women in the usual care group two times after surgery at least 12 hours apart to collect the same information.

Compared to women in the usual care group, women who received acupuncture had less pain, nausea, and anxiety, and were better able to cope on the first day after mastectomy surgery. These differences were statistically significant, which means that they were likely because of the difference in care and not just due to chance.

"We are always looking for non-pharmacologic pain management options. This study showed that acupuncture in the hospital after mastectomy is not only feasible, it also appears to decrease patients' symptoms of pain, nausea, and anxiety," said Sue Sendelbach, R.N., Ph.D., director of nursing research at Abbott Northwestern Hospital.

While the results of this study are promising, the study was very small and done at only one hospital. More research is needed before acupuncture after mastectomy is implemented as the standard of care.

Other studies have suggested that acupuncture can help ease hot flashes, fatigue, anxiety, joint pain, and depression related to breast cancer treatment, especially hormonal therapy.

If you’re interested in learning more about acupuncture, including what to expect and practitioner requirements, visit the Acupuncture page.

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