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Effectiveness of Electroacupuncture for Sleep Disturbances in Patients With Breast Cancer and Hot Flashes

Key Points

  • Electroacupuncture was comparable to, if not better than, gabapentin in helping to reduce hot flash severity and frequency and improving overall sleep quality (including falling asleep faster and fewer sleep disruptions).
  • Although it is not exactly understood how acupuncture affects sleep, it has been shown to affect a number of neurotransmitters associated with sleep, such as serotonin and melatonin.
  • Poor sleep is particularly bothersome for breast cancer survivors experiencing nighttime hot flashes because it has been shown to increase levels of pain, fatigue, depression, and anxiety.

Studies suggest that approximately 30% to 40% of women with breast cancer report persistent hot flashes. Nocturnal hot flashes are among the most problematic because they can contribute to poor sleep. A new study published by Garland et al in Menopause shows that electroacupuncture may be effective in providing some relief.

Compared with women who undergo natural menopause, women with breast cancer are at a greater risk of experiencing hot flashes, partially as a result of the premature menopause that results from chemotherapy and surgery, as well as estrogen deficiency caused by the use of breast cancer treatments such as tamoxifen and aromatase inhibitors. It is estimated that by the year 2020 there will be nearly 6 million breast cancer survivors in the United States.

Study Findings

Researchers analyzed data from a randomized, controlled trial involving 58 breast cancer survivors experiencing bothersome hot flashes. They compared the benefits of using electroacupuncture (the application of a pulsating electric current) to prescribing gabapentin, an antiseizure medication frequently prescribed to treat sleep disturbances related to hot flashes.

The study showed electroacupuncture to be comparable to, if not better than, gabapentin in helping to reduce hot flash severity and frequency as well as in improving overall sleep quality (including falling asleep faster and fewer sleep disruptions). Although it is not exactly understood how acupuncture affects sleep, it has been shown to affect a number of neurotransmitters associated with sleep, such as serotonin and melatonin.

Poor sleep is particularly bothersome for breast cancer survivors experiencing nighttime hot flashes because it has been shown to increase levels of pain, fatigue, depression, and anxiety. Although electroacupuncture produced significant sleep improvements, researchers noted that sleep quality for the participants was still not as good as it should be, implying that more research is necessary to explore possible combinations of pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic treatments.

“This study shows that, for women who need or choose to avoid medications, electroacupuncture may be an option because it has minimal risks, but blinded controlled trials are needed,” said JoAnn Pinkerton, MD, Executive Director of the North American Menopause Society.

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.


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