Now new research suggests that acupuncture may help ease some of these side effects, and it may be more effective than antidepressants for relieving hot flashes and more.
"This study compared the effectiveness of acupuncture to drug therapy, and we found acupuncture was just as effective and had no side effects," said study author Dr. Eleanor M. Walker, director of breast radiation oncology at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.
"We were also able to show that the effect of acupuncture was longer lasting. After about two weeks of stopping drug therapy, women started having symptoms. With acupuncture, it was 15 weeks," she said.
Walker was expected to present the findings Monday at the American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology's annual meeting, in Boston.
Acupuncture is an ancient treatment that's a mainstay of Chinese medicine. It has been practiced for thousands of years, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Acupuncture involves the placement of very slender needles into the skin along certain points.
In Chinese medicine, it's believed that acupuncture works by unblocking the flow of energy along meridians. In Western medicine, the exact reason acupuncture might work isn't clear, but some theorize that the placement of needles may release endorphins, a chemical that make you feel good. Walker added that the meridian lines from Chinese medicine closely correspond to the body's network of nerves.
Treatments for breast cancer can induce early menopause, and many dampen the production of estrogen, leaving women with hot flashes, excessive sweating, fatigue and more.
Women with breast cancer can't be given hormone replacement therapy, so doctors often prescribe antidepressants, which can have their own side effects.
In the current study, Walker and her colleagues compared acupuncture with the use of the antidepressant Effexor in 47 women with breast cancer. Each woman was randomly assigned to receive a 12-week course of the antidepressant or acupuncture. Prior to the study, the women reported having at least 14 hot flashes per week.
After the study intervention, both groups reported similar improvements in hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms. However, there were no side effects reported in the acupuncture group, whereas some women in the antidepressant group had nausea, dry mouth, headache, trouble sleeping, constipation and other side effects.
Walker also said that many of those receiving acupuncture reported having more energy, a greater sense of well-being, and an improved sex drive.
"There are alternatives to drugs. This is a viable treatment without side effects, but it's going to take patients pushing insurance companies to get them to pay," said Walker. Currently, most insurance companies won't pay for acupuncture.
Dr. Jay Brooks, chairman of hematology/oncology at Ochsner Health System in Baton Rouge, La., said that this is "an interesting, but very small study. Right now, I wouldn't recommend acupuncture to patients outside of a clinical trial. We need a larger prospective trial. Because the symptoms you're measuring are so variable, it really requires a large number of people to answer."