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Acupuncture may relieve joint pain caused by some breast cancer treatments

Joint pain, stiffness common side effect of routine therapy

A new study, led by researchers at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, demonstrates that acupuncture may be an effective therapy for joint pain and stiffness in breast cancer patients who are being treated with commonly used hormonal therapies. Results were published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Joint pain and stiffness are common side effects of aromatase inhibitor therapy, in which the synthesis of estrogen is blocked. The therapy, which is a common and effective treatment for early-stage, hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer in post-menopausal women, has been shown in previous research to cause some joint pain and stiffness in half of women being treated.

"Since aromatase inhibitors have become an increasingly popular treatment option for some breast cancer patients, we aimed to find a non-drug option to manage the joint issues they often create, thereby improving quality of life and reducing the likelihood that patients would discontinue this potentially life-saving treatment," said Dawn Hershman, M.D, M.S., senior author of the paper, and co-director of the breast cancer program at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, and an assistant professor of medicine (hematology/oncology) and epidemiology at Columbia University Medical Center.

To explore the effects of acupuncture on aromatase inhibitor-associated joint pain, the research team randomly assigned 43 women to receive either true acupuncture or sham acupuncture twice a week for six weeks. Sham acupuncture, which was used to control for a potential placebo effect, involved superficial needle insertion at body points not recognized as true acupuncture points. All participants were receiving an aromatase inhibitor for early breast cancer, and all had reported musculoskeletal pain.

Among the women treated with true acupuncture, findings demonstrated that they experienced significant improvement in joint pain and stiffness over the course of the study. Pain severity declined, and overall physical well-being improved. Additionally, 20 percent of the patients who had reported taking pain relief medications reported that they no longer needed to take these medications following acupuncture treatment. No such improvements were reported by the women who were treated with the sham acupuncture.

"This study suggests that acupuncture may help women manage the joint pain and stiffness that can accompany aromatase inhibitor treatment," said Katherine D. Crew, M.D., M.S., first author of the paper, and the Florence Irving Assistant Professor of Medicine (hematology/oncology) and Epidemiology at Columbia University Medical Center and a hematological oncologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center. "To our knowledge, this is the first randomized, placebo-controlled trial establishing that acupuncture may be an effective method to relieve joint problems caused by these medications. However, results still need to be confirmed in larger, multicenter studies."

The Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center at Columbia University Medical Center and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital encompasses pre-clinical and clinical research, treatment, prevention and education efforts in cancer. The Cancer Center was initially funded by the NCI in 1972 and became a National Cancer Institute (NCI)–designated comprehensive cancer center in 1979. The designation recognizes the Center's collaborative environment and expertise in harnessing translational research to bridge scientific discovery to clinical delivery, with the ultimate goal of successfully introducing novel diagnostic, therapeutic and preventive approaches to cancer. For more information, visit

Columbia University Medical Center provides international leadership in basic, pre-clinical and clinical research, in medical and health sciences education, and in patient care. The medical center trains future leaders and includes the dedicated work of many physicians, scientists, public health professionals, dentists, and nurses at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Mailman School of Public Health, the College of Dental Medicine, the School of Nursing, the biomedical departments of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and allied research centers and institutions. Established in 1767, Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons was the first institution in the country to grant the M.D. degree and is now among the most selective medical schools in the country. Columbia University Medical Center is home to the most comprehensive medical research enterprise in New York City and state and one of the largest in the United States. Columbia University Medical Center is affiliated with NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, the nation's largest not-for-profit hospital provider. For more information, please visit

NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, based in New York City, is the nation's largest not-for-profit, non-sectarian hospital, with 2,353 beds. The Hospital has more than 1 million inpatient and outpatient visits in a year, including more than 220,000 visits to its emergency departments — more than any other area hospital. NewYork-Presbyterian provides state-of-the-art inpatient, ambulatory and preventive care in all areas of medicine at five major centers: NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/The Allen Hospital and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Westchester Division. One of the largest and most comprehensive health care institutions in the world, the Hospital is committed to excellence in patient care, research, education and community service. NewYork-Presbyterian is the #1 hospital in the New York metropolitan area and is consistently ranked among the best academic medical institutions in the nation, according to U.S.News & World Report. The Hospital has academic affiliations with two of the nation's leading medical colleges: Weill Cornell Medical College and Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. For more information, visit

Elizabeth Streich | EurekAlert!
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