WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Acupuncture works as well as a drug commonly used to combat hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms that can accompany breast cancer treatment, and its benefits last longer, without bad side effects, researchers said on Monday.
They tested acupuncture, which began in China more than 2,000 years ago and involves inserting needles into the body, against the Wyeth antidepressant Effexor, for hot flashes in breast cancer patients.
Acupuncture was just as effective as Effexor, also called venlafaxine, in managing symptoms including hot flashes and night sweats, according to researchers led by Dr. Eleanor Walker of Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.
After 12 weeks of treatment, symptoms were reduced for 15 additional weeks for women who had undergone acupuncture, compared with two weeks for those who had taken Effexor, Walker said.
“It was a more durable effect,” Walker, whose findings were presented at an American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology meeting in Boston, said in a telephone interview.
There were no bad side effects with acupuncture, and women reported increased energy, overall sense of well-being and sexual desire, the researchers said.
Those taking Effexor reported side effects including nausea, headache, difficulty sleeping, dizziness, increased blood pressure, fatigue and anxiety.
The study adds to a growing body of evidence of the value of acupuncture. Earlier research had shown it can reduce chemotherapy-induced nausea and post-operative pain.
“It’s been tested directly against a drug that we use regularly. And it’s more effective. It has benefits, as opposed to any side-effects,” Walker said.
“If you only have to give women treatment three to four times a year as opposed to having to take a pill every day, that’s going to be more cost-effective for insurance companies and the patient,” Walker added.
Breast cancer patients can develop menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes after treatment with chemotherapy and anti-estrogen hormones. Hormone replacement therapy is often used to treat such symptoms in women without breast cancer, but breast cancer patients cannot use that therapy because it may raise the risk of the cancer’s return.
Effexor, one of a class of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, is one of the most commonly used drugs to treat hot flashes in these women.
But the researchers said some women opt not to take such drugs out of concern over side effects.
Forty-seven breast cancer patients took part in the study, about half getting acupuncture and half getting Effexor. The women kept track of the number and severity of hot flashes before, during and after the 12 weeks of treatment.
Walker said it is unclear exactly how acupuncture is working. Experts say it may help the activity of the body’s natural pain-killing chemicals among other things.
Editing by Patricia Zengerle