Author Jo Marchant
Large study suggests acupuncture could help women stick with unpleasant cancer treatments.
One of the largest-ever clinical trials into whether acupuncture can relieve pain in cancer patients has reignited a debate over the role of this contested technique in cancer care.
Oncologists who conducted a trial of real and sham acupuncture in 226 women at 11 different cancer centres across the United States say their results — presented on 7 December at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium in Texas — conclude that the treatment significantly reduces pain in women receiving hormone therapy for breast cancer. They suggest it could help patients stick to life-saving cancer treatments, potentially improving survival rates. But sceptics say it is almost impossible to conduct completely rigorous double-blinded trials of acupuncture.
Interest in acupuncture has grown because of concerns over the use of opioid-based pain-relief drugs, which can have nasty side effects and are extremely addictive. Many cancer centres in the United States therefore offer complementary therapies for pain relief. Almost 90% of US National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centres suggest that patients try acupuncture, and just over 70% offer it as a treatment for side effects1. That horrifies sceptics such as Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine and founder of the blog Science-Based Medicine. Acupuncture has no scientific basis, he says; recommending it is “telling patients that magic works”.
But Dawn Hershman, an oncologist at Columbia University Medical Centre in New York City, decided to investigate whether acupuncture could help to reduce the pain caused by aromatase inhibitors, one of the most commonly used treatments for breast cancer. These drugs lower oestrogen levels and, when taken over five to ten years, they reduce the risk that the cancer will recur. But they cause side effects, especially arthritis-like pain, which can cause up to half of women to take the medication irregularly, or to stop taking it altogether.