Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania may have discovered a new form of treatment that prevents and reduces fatigue, anxiety, depression, and joint pain in breast cancer patients. For many early-stage breast cancer patients, taking post-treatment drugs which work to prevent the recurrence of the disease becomes difficult or impossible because of the inhibiting side effects, leading to an early discontinuation of the treatment. Almost half of the women prescribed these drugs, called aromatase inhibitors (AIs), stop taking them before the recommended treatment period elapses, leading to a higher risk of breast-cancer-related death.

However, a study released this week in the medical journal Cancer examines the use of electroacupuncture, a type of acupuncture treatment in which electric currents are passed between the needles, to treat the side-effects of these AIs. The study may suggest that electroacupuncture is very effective for treating joint pain, fatigue, depression, and anxiety.

Comparing Electroacupuncture to Other Treatments

The researchers, lead by head author Jun Mao, MD MSCE, conducted an eight week long trial in which they examined the effects, safety, and efficiency of electroacupuncture as a treatment for AI-related side effects. They compared the electroacupuncture treatment to usual post-treatment care and to sham acupuncture, a placebo form of acupuncture in which the needles are not inserted into the skin.

The participating breast cancer patients were randomly assigned to one of the three treatments, and were asked to record and rate the incidences and severities of fatigue, anxiety, and depression on a scale of 0-10 before, during, and after their treatments.

The Results

The self-reported fatigue, anxiety, and depression scores were examined after 12 weeks. Treatment continued for eight weeks after this examination, along with an additional follow-up session four weeks later to determine whether the effects were long-lasting. It was found that compared to the usual care group, the electroacupuncture group reported at least a two-point greater reduction in the severity of all symptoms.

Electroacupuncture patients reported a 2.2 point greater anxiety reduction compared to the other groups, and a 2.4 point greater reduction in depression scores. While the sham acupuncture group also reported a 2.2 point higher depression score reduction compared to the usual care group, there was no improvement in either fatigue or anxiety scores for the sham treatment.

Electroacupuncture for Anxiety, Depression, and Fatigue

Jun Mao was very optimistic about the results of the study, commenting that their findings give patients with pain, fatigue, anxiety, and depression, a way to target multiple symptoms at once. He adds, "we see patients every day who are looking for ways to combat some of the side effects of their treatment. What is particularly significant about these new results is that we can now offer more evidence-based treatment and management solutions for these women."

Mao encouraged the exploration of electroacupuncture for breast cancer patients, and also stated that the results of this study pave the way for other larger, more comprehensive studies on the effects of acupuncture as an anxiety and depression treatment.


Date of original publication:
Updated on: March 16, 2017


Jun J. Mao MD MSCE, John T. Farrar MD PhD, Deborah Bruner PhD RN, Jarcy Zee BS, Marjorie Bowman MD MPA, Christine Seluzicki BA, Angela DeMichele MD MSCE, Sharon X. Xie PhD. Electroacupuncture for fatigue, sleep, and psychological distress in breast cancer patients with aromatase inhibitor-related arthralgia: A randomized trial. Cancer, July 2014. DOI: 10.1002/cncr.28917