One of the lesser-known adverse side effects of breast cancer is persistent hot flashes, which some studies suggest occur in approximately 30% to 40% of women. More specifically, nighttime hot flashes are problematic for them because they disrupt sleep.
New research has found that electro-acupuncture may be helpful in providing some relief to these hot flashes. The research is going to be published in the online journal, Menopause, by the North American Menopause Society (NAMS).
Women with breast cancer are more likely to suffer from hot flashes than those who go through menopause naturally. This is due to the early menopause caused by chemotherapy, surgery, and the use of drugs that cause estrogen deficiencies like tamoxifen and aromatase inhibitors. Some scientists estimate that by the year 2020, there will be almost 6 million breast cancer survivors in America.
Data was analyzed from a randomized, controlled trial of 58 women who survived breast cancer and were experiencing hot flashes which significantly interfered with their quality of sleep and life. The benefits of using electro-acupuncture – pulsating electrical currents applied to different areas of the body – were compared with gabapentin medication – an anti-seizure drug that is sometimes used to help treat insomnia and other sleep disturbances that are related to hot flashes.
The findings indicated that electro-acupuncture was comparable to, or even better than, the medication with regard to reducing the severity and frequency of hot flashes. Further, it improved overall sleep quality, especially with respect to how long it took to fall asleep and how many times they were awoken with hot flashes. Scientists do not fully understand how or why acupuncture helps with sleep, but multiple studies have shown that it affects neurotransmitters that are associated with sleep, like melatonin and serotonin.
Breast cancer survivors are bothered by hot-flash-induced sleep deprivation because it frequently comes with increased levels of depression, anxiety, fatigue, and pain. While electro-acupuncture did offer significant improvements in sleep, scientists note that the quality of sleep for the patients was not as good as perhaps it could be, which implies that additional research will be needed to determine if combination pharmacologic and non-pharmacologic treatments would help.
Dr. JoAnn Pinkerton, executive director of NAMS, notes that the study tells us that electro-acupuncture may be an alternative option for women who choose or need to avoid medications, since electro-acupuncture has fewer risks; however, Dr. Pinkerton notes that blind control studies are necessary to find out more.
Rachael Herman is a professional writer with an extensive background in medical writing, research, and language development. Her hobbies include hiking in the Rockies, cooking, and reading.