Acupuncture emerges as a ray of hope for breast cancer patients suffering often-debilitating hot flashes, based on a new Italian study.

Combining enhanced self-care and lifestyle with weekly acupuncture significantly reduced hot flashes in these patients, reported study author Giorgia Razzini, clinical trial project manager in oncology of Italy’s Carpi Hospital.

The therapy becomes extra useful given how hormone treatment for breast cancer usually worsens hot flashes, said Razzini.

The researchers analyzed 190 breast cancer patients reporting moderate to worst hot flashes while they underwent treatment from 2010 to 2013. The subjects were divided into two: the first group of 105 was given a three-month regiment of self-care involving diet and lifestyle, and the second group of 85 provided the same advice paired with 10 half-hour sessions of acupuncture every week.

All participants tracked the frequency and severity of their hot flashes.

By the end of three months, the second group’s hot flash scores were only half of those in the first group, with the results continuing for six months after the last acupuncture session. That acupuncture group also appeared to have a higher overall quality of life based on physical and mental wellness – without any serious side effect.

“[Acupuncture] should be less expensive and, for sure, more safe and feasible,” Razzini says, comparing it to other treatments such as antidepressant drugs.

The researchers, however, urged caution in using acupuncture if the doctor has already prescribed antidepressants, which were not allowed in their trial.

How does acupuncture cause these benefits? According to the author, it could be due to its ability to incite blood vessel dilation in the nervous system, at the same time stimulating the release of neurotransmitter endorphin, stress hormone norepinephrine, and mood regulator serotonin.

Dr. Jun Mao, integrative medicine chief at New York City’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, agreed that the results are promising even if acupuncture’s performance against other treatments remain unclear.

“I think it is gradually being introduced into many cancer centers in the U.S. [for hot flashes in breast cancer patients],” he says, suggesting that the benefits could come from the therapy itself or the patient’s increased engagement in health care.

Breast oncology surgeon, Dr. Courtney Vito, echoed acupuncture’s success in this area, although not all insurance providers currently cover it.

"[This] may help to encourage insurance companies to their expand coverage so this can become an affordable option for all patients in need,” adds Vito, who warned that women with severe hot flashes even refuse certain cancer risk-slashing medications because of their condition.

The findings were published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

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