Acupressure: A Way to Ease Fatigue After Breast Cancer Treatment?

Newly published research has found that acupressure, a derivative of traditional Chinese medicine that puts pressure on Qi points using thumbs or devices, may provide breast cancer survivors with some much-needed relief for fatigue, one of the most common, and long-lasting, aftereffects of their anticancer treatment.

Suzanna Zick, ND, MPH

Newly published research has found that acupressure, a derivative of traditional Chinese medicine that puts pressure on Qi points using thumbs or devices, may provide breast cancer survivors with some much-needed relief for fatigue, one of the most common, and long-lasting, aftereffects of their anticancer treatment.

Researchers found that the technique reduced fatigue by 27%to 34%over six weeks. In addition, two-thirds of women in the study who performed relaxing acupressure reported having normal fatigue levels. The study findings were published in the journal JAMA Oncology.

Researchers tested two types of acupressure—relaxing acupressure (used to treat insomnia) and stimulating acupressure (used to increase energy)—and compared these approaches with usual care involving typical sleep-management techniques.

This randomized clinical trial followed 270 women recruited from the Michigan Tumor Registry who had survived stage 0 to III breast cancer and had completed treatment at least 12 months earlier. The participants were randomized to relaxing acupressure (n = 94), stimulating acupressure (n = 90) or usual care (n = 86). Those chosen to do acupressure were taught within 15 minutes how to locate and stimulate the acupressure points with the correct amount of pressure. Participants were instructed to perform it at home once a day for six weeks.

By the end of the six weeks, more than half of participants using acupressure achieved normal fatigue levels: 66.2% in the relaxing acupressure group and 60.9% in the stimulating acupressure group. Relaxing acupressure also improved measures of sleep quality, including disrupted sleep and overall quality of life. With usual care, only 31.3% of women had normal fatigue levels.

At week 10, 56.3% of women in the relaxing acupressure arm of the study maintained normal fatigue levels, as did 60.9% in the stimulating acupressure arm of the study, compared with 30.1% in the usual care group.

Some women reported experiencing slight bruising on the sites where they were applying pressure, and 1 woman withdrew from the study as a result of this complaint. About 12% of the women stopped participating in the study because they found acupressure to be too time consuming.

Prior research suggests that acupuncture, which uses needles instead of pressure to stimulate Qi points, can be beneficial in curbing fatigue. However, it is often quite expensive and time consuming, requiring patients to visit a practitioner once or twice a week, a treatment often not covered by insurance. Acupressure, on the other hand, is simple to learn and can be done from the comforts of home.

“Fatigue is an underappreciated symptom across a lot of chronic diseases, especially cancer. It has a significant impact on quality of life,” notes study author Suzanna Zick, ND, MPH, associate research professor of family medicine at the University of Michigan. “Acupressure is easy to learn and patients can do it themselves … Given the brief training required to learn acupressure, this intervention could be a low-cost option for treating fatigue.”

To help people learn how to perform acupressure, the researchers are developing a mobile teaching app. They will also explore why acupressure influences fatigue, look at its effects in patients going through treatment and its impact in people with cancers other than breast.

Zick SM, Sen A, Wyatt G, et al. Investigation of 2 types of self-administered acupressure for persistent cancer-related fatigue in breast cancer survivors: a randomized clinical trial [published online before print July 7, 2016]. JAMA Oncol.