A symptom of menopause, hot flashes are caused by a decrease in estrogen.
Several breast cancer treatments, including chemotherapy, ovarian removal and shut down, and all the hormonal therapy medicines, also can cause hot flashes. Many women report that hot flashes are one of the most aggravating side effects of hormonal therapy, disrupting their sleep and making them uncomfortable at work.
The results of a small study support earlier research showing that electroacupuncture can help ease hot flashes as much or more than gabapentin, improving women’s sleep quality.
The research was published online on Nov. 28, 2016 by Menopause: The Journal of the North American Menopause Society. Read the abstract of “Comparative effectiveness of electro-acupuncture versus gabapentin for sleep disturbances in breast cancer survivors with hot flashes: a randomized trial.”
Electroacupuncture is a type of acupuncture where a small electric current passes between pairs of acupuncture needles.
Gabapentin (brand name: Neurontin) is an anti-seizure medicine that’s often prescribed to treat sleep problems related to hot flashes.
This study included 58 women who had been treated for breast cancer and reported having bothersome hot flashes at least twice per day.
The women were randomly assigned to one of two treatments:
- 8 weeks of electroacupuncture
- 900 mg per day of gabapentin for 8 weeks
The researchers used a standard tool to assess the quality of the women’s sleep twice during the study:
- before the women started either electroacupuncture or gabapentin
- after 8 weeks of treatment with either electroacupuncture or gabapentin
The researchers found that the women in the electroacupuncture group had greater improved sleep quality compared to women in the gabapentin group. This difference was statistically significant, which means that it was likely due to the difference in treatment and not just because of chance.
Women in the electroacupuncture group were able to fall asleep faster and had fewer sleep disturbances compared to women in the gabapentin group.
Doctors don’t understand exactly how acupuncture and electroacupuncture affect sleep. Research suggests that acupuncture can affect a number of neurotransmitters — the chemical messengers that send information throughout the body — that affect sleep, such as serotonin and melatonin.
The researchers pointed out that while electroacupuncture improved the women’s sleep, their sleep quality still was not as good as it should be. The researchers strongly suggested that more research is needed to look at possible combinations of medicines and non-medicinal treatments to offer women who’ve been treated for breast cancer optimal sleep quality.
If hot flashes associated with breast cancer treatment are affecting your sleep, you may want to talk to your doctor about this study. Electroacupuncture and acupuncture are complementary and holistic medicine techniques that have been shown to help ease side effects from breast cancer treatment.
You can learn more in the Complementary & Holistic Medicine section.