Acupuncture seems to work to ease cancer pain.

Nature steps into the alternative-medicine fray with research showing that acupuncture significantly reduces pain for female breast-cancer patients:

Oncologists who conducted a trial of real and sham acupuncture in 226 women at 11 different cancer centres across the United States say their results — presented on 7 December at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium in Texas — conclude that the treatment significantly reduces pain in women receiving hormone therapy for breast cancer. They suggest it could help patients stick to life-saving cancer treatments, potentially improving survival rates. But sceptics say it is almost impossible to conduct completely rigorous double-blinded trials of acupuncture.

Interest in acupuncture has grown because of concerns over the use of opioid-based pain-relief drugs, which can have nasty side effects and are extremely addictive.

Dawn Hershman, an oncologist at Columbia University Medical Centre in New York City, decided to investigate whether acupuncture could help to reduce the pain caused by aromatase inhibitors, one of the most commonly used treatments for breast cancer. These drugs lower oestrogen levels and, when taken over five to ten years, they reduce the risk that the cancer will recur. But they cause side effects, especially arthritis-like pain, which can cause up to half of women to take the medication irregularly, or to stop taking it altogether.

The 226 women were placed into one of three groups: one that received acupuncture; another that got a sham treatment in which needles were inserted at non-acupuncture points, less deeply into the skin; and a third that received no treatment. The researchers trained the acupuncturists to deliver consistent treatments. The women were asked to record their pain levels.

After a six-week course of treatment, ‘worst pain’ in the true-acupuncture group was about one point lower on a scale from zero to ten than in either the sham or no-treatment groups. This is a statistically significant effect, and larger than is seen with alternatives such as duloxetine, an antidepressant used to help reduce pain in people with cancer.