Introduction Since hormone replacement therapy given for long periods is now recognised to produce serious side effects, patients with troublesome vasomotor symptoms are increasingly using non-hormonal treatment including acupuncture. Several randomised controlled trials have shown that acupuncture reduces menopausal symptoms in patients experiencing the normal climacteric. It may have this effect by raising serotonin levels which alter the temperature set point in the hypothalamus. Vasomotor symptoms can be extreme in breast cancer patients and patients with prostate cancer who are undergoing anticancer therapy. The safety of some herbal medicines and phytoestrogens has been questioned, as they could potentially interfere adversely with the bioavailability of tumouricidal drugs. A previous study reports short term benefit from acupuncture, and the aim of this report is to describe our approach to long term treatment.
Acupuncture approach After piloting several approaches, six weekly treatments were given initially at LI4, TE5, LR3 and SP6 and two upper sternal points, but avoiding any limb with existing lymphoedema or prone to developing it. If there were no contraindications, patients were given clear instructions on how to perform self acupuncture using either semi-permanent needles or conventional needling at SP6, weekly for up to six years, for long term maintenance.
Audit methods and results A retrospective audit of electronic records was carried out by a doctor not involved in treatment. A total of 194 patients were treated, predominantly with breast and prostate cancer. One hundred and eighty two patients were female. The number of pre-treatment hot flushes per day was estimated by the patient: in the 159 cases providing adequate records, the mean was 16 flushes per day. Following treatment, 114 (79%) gained a 50% or greater reduction in hot flushes and 30 (21%) a less than 50% reduction. Treatment was abandoned in those who responded poorly or not at all. The duration of treatment varied from one month to over six years with a mean duration of nine months. Seventeen patients (9%) experienced minor side effects over the six year period, mostly minor rashes; one patient described leg swelling but this was likely to be due to a concurrent fracture.
Conclusion Acupuncture including self acupuncture is associated with long term relief of vasomotor symptoms in cancer patients. Treatment is safe and costs appear to be low. An algorithm is presented to guide clinical use. We recommend the use of self acupuncture with needles at SP6 in preference to semi-permanent needles in the first instance, but poor responders use indwelling studs if they fail to respond adequately to self acupuncture with regular needles. Point location may be of less importance than the overall ‘dose’, and an appropriate minimum dose may be required to initiate the effect.
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