For women with breast cancer, hot flashes can be an unpleasant side effect of treatment. But new research points to electro-acupuncture — a type of acupuncture that uses tiny needles gently activated by a current — as a possible source of relief.

We asked Jun Mao, MD, Chief of Integrative Medicine at Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK), to elaborate on a study he led to evaluate whether this type of acupuncture helps women suffering from hot flashes and sleep problems due to breast cancer treatment.

Why do women with breast cancer often experience hot flashes?

Hot flashes can be induced by chemotherapy or premature menopause due to surgical removal of the ovaries, a procedure that women with breast cancer sometimes have in order to avoid ovarian cancer. In addition, many cancer drugs that affect the hormones, like tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors, can make hot flashes worse and more persistent. The existing drug approaches for treating hot flashes are partially effective, but not for all patients, and some of them cause troublesome symptoms like weight gain and sexual side effects. Patients need more options.

What did the study look at?

We know that hot flashes can cause sleep disruption. People’s sleep is fragmented and they feel very tired. So we compared electro-acupuncture with gabapentin, a drug that has been shown to be effective for hot flashes in people with breast cancer.

We found that electro-acupuncture actually produced a better overall sleep quality than gabapentin, and also produced better results in specific areas such as sleep latency — the time it takes to fall asleep — as well as sleep efficiency, meaning how much of the time in bed you’re actually sleeping. These data are very encouraging and offer the potential that women with breast cancer may have another tool to help them manage hot flashes, as well as sleep related to hot flashes.

Would regular acupuncture have the same effect as electro-acupuncture?

Our study can only demonstrate that electro-acupuncture, a type of acupuncture we offer at MSK, is helpful. The way it works is not just by putting needles in the skin — some of the needles are paired with electrodes to stimulate a current. Those currents provide very gentle stimulation. Patients often say it feels like a gentle tapping of their skin. I would say acupuncture is something worth trying. A course of acupuncture treatment — six to ten sessions — may stabilize the body’s ability to regulate its temperature. Ideally, someone should initially come in once a week for treatment.

What's the next step in this research?

The next step is to do a large trial with a long-term follow-up to understand the effects of acupuncture versus the effects of conventional therapies, including drugs for hot flashes, sleep, and fatigue. We want to examine the long-term durability of those therapeutic effects because I think a lot of women want to know if it will work for them and if the effect lasts. Those are all really important, patient-centered questions that require research.

Acupuncture is offered at Memorial Sloan Kettering's outpatient cancer center in Commack. To learn more, call 646-888-0800. 

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