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Acupuncture Helps Control Nausea from Breast Cancer Treatment (dateline December 13, 2000)

A derivation of a Chinese medicine practice that originated 2,000 to 3,000 years ago may help women with breast cancer. According to a recent study, electroacupuncture, the application of electrical stimulation through traditional acupuncture needles, relieves nausea in breast cancer patients who undergo high-dose chemotherapy.  While there is no scientific evidence that acupuncture should be used to treat breast cancer, this research suggests that it may be a useful complement to traditional medicine in helping to ease nausea caused by breast cancer treatment.

In the study, reported in the December 6, 2000 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Joannie Shen, MD of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and her colleagues enrolled 104 women who were undergoing high-dose chemotherapy prior to having bone marrow transplants.   All of the women received anti-nausea drugs. In addition, each of the women received either electroacupuncture once a day for five days, "minimal needling" with no electrical stimulation once a day for five days, or no additional therapy.

Over the five days, Dr. Shen and her colleagues noted that the women who received electroacupuncture experienced significantly fewer episodes of nausea and vomiting than the women who did not receive any needling. The women who received minimal needling with no electrical stimulation also experienced fewer episodes of nausea and vomiting than the women who did not receive needling but more episodes of nausea and vomiting than the women who received electroacupuncture.

Summary of Results: Patients Undergoing High-Dose Chemotherapy

Type of therapy to ease side effects Average incidence of nausea/vomiting
Minimal acupuncture needling
No acupuncture needling
5 episodes of nausea and vomiting
10 episodes of nausea and vomiting
15 episodes of nausea and vomiting

According to Dr. Shen and her colleagues, there is a concern among some members of the medical community about drug interactions from certain chemotherapy regimens and anti-nausea drugs. Since some women cannot take anti-nausea drugs during chemotherapy, complementary therapies such as acupuncture may be helpful to these women.

Acupuncture involves using needles to stimulate the body’s "acupoints" (pressure points). Acupuncture needles are typically inserted just far enough into the body so that they cannot fall out and are usually left in place for about a half an hour. According to Chinese medicine theory, acupuncture helps restore balance and a healthy energy flow to the body. Electroacupunture is an enhanced form of acupuncture and involves applying weak electrical currents to the needles.

Acupuncture has become an increasingly popular practice in the United States and other Western countries. According to the American Cancer Society, there are over 10,000 acupuncturists in the United States, and approximately 32 states have set standards for acupuncture licensing. Acupuncture is not covered by Medicare but may be covered in certain situations by some private health insurance providers and HMOs.

Previous studies have also found that acupuncture helps relieve nausea caused by chemotherapy drugs or surgical anesthesia. Researchers are investigating whether acupuncture is a useful complementary therapy to help treat several other conditions (including headache, menstrual cramps, asthma, osteoarthritis, and lower back pain) and whether it may help in the rehabilitation of stroke patients.

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