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Acupuncture Reduces Joint Pain from Aromatase Inhibitors

By Lisa Schulmeister, MN, RN, FAAN
Aromatase inhibitors can often cause considerable joint pain to patients with breast cancer. Often, the pain is so unbearable that patients discontinue therapy. A new study proves that acupuncture can help alleviate some of this pain. The first large, multicenter trial to investigate the effect of acupuncture in treating aromatase inhibitor-induced joint symptoms in women with breast cancer reported a statistically significant reduction in pain with acupuncture use.

Results from the SWOG multicenter randomized controlled trial of the effectiveness of acupuncture on joint pain scores were presented at the 2017 San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium. Women taking an aromatase inhibitor (AI), known to cause joint pain, for at least 30 days and having a worst pain score of three or higher on a 10-point scale were randomized at a 2:1:1 ratio to true acupuncture (TA) vs. sham acupuncture (SA) vs. waitlist control (WC).

The TA protocol used a standardized protocol of body and auricular acupoints tailored to joint symptoms. The similarly standardized SA protocol used superficial needling of non-acupoints. Both the TA and SA protocols consisted of a 12 week intervention, with 12 sessions administered over 6 weeks, followed by 1 session per week for 6 additional weeks. The primary endpoint was change in the “worst pain” score at 6 weeks.

The 226 women in the study were randomized; 110 were randomized to TA, 59 to SA and 57 to WC. Baseline characteristics were similar between the groups. The proportion of women experiencing a clinically meaningful (>2) reduction in worst pain score was 58% for TA compared to 33% on SA and 31% on WC.

True acupuncture generated better outcomes than either sham acupuncture or regular care (control group) with minimal toxicity.
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