Conference Coverage

Breast cancer-related musculoskeletal pain alleviated with acupuncture



SAN ANTONIO – Breast cancer survivors with chronic musculoskeletal pain may experience relief from pain with electroacupuncture and auricular acupuncture, according to a new study recently presented at the 2021 San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium.

Both techniques led to clinically meaningful and persistent reduction of pain, but electroacupuncture was more effective in reducing pain severity, according to study author Wanqing Iris Zhi, MD, PhD, of the Breast Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Among breast cancer survivors, Dr. Zhi said, chronic musculoskeletal pain is common and debilitating. In earlier results of the PEACE (Personalized Electroacupuncture versus Auricular Acupuncture Comparative Effectiveness) trial, both electroacupuncture and auricular acupuncture improved pain control better than usual care in cancer survivors. The comparative effectiveness between electroacupuncture and auricular acupuncture among breast cancer survivors, specifically for chronic musculoskeletal pain, remains unknown.

To evaluate potential differences between electroacupuncture and auricular acupuncture, Dr. Zhi et al. examined data from PEACE, a three-arm, parallel, single center randomized trial investigating electroacupuncture and auricular acupuncture for chronic musculoskeletal pain, compared with usual care. Among 360 cancer survivors in PEACE, mean age in 165 cancer survivors with a primary diagnosis of breast cancer was 60.3 years (35.8 percent non-White) with a mean of 5.4 years since their cancer diagnoses. Patients in both the electroacupuncture and auricular acupuncture groups received 10 weekly treatments. Change in mean Brief Pain Inventory (BPI) pain severity from baseline to week 12 was the primary endpoint, with BPI change to week 24 as a secondary endpoint. Usual care patients, after week 12, could receive 10 electroacupuncture treatments.

The most common locations of chronic musculoskeletal pain, Dr. Zhi observed, were lower back (24 percent), knee/leg (24 percent) and shoulder/elbow (14 percent). About 70 percent of patients were taking pain medication. Both electroacupuncture and auricular acupuncture were associated with clinically meaningful and persistent pain reductions among the evaluated breast cancer survivors. The change in BPI severity from baseline to week 12 was –0.29 (confidence interval, –0.08, 0.28) in the UC group. In the electroacupuncture group it was –2.65 (CI, –3.06, –2.25; P ≤0.001 from baseline) and –2.37 versus usual care (CI, –3.05, –1.68; P ≤0.001 versus UC). For the auricular acupuncture group, the change from baseline was –1.75 (CI, –2.15, –1.35; P ≤0.001 from baseline) and –1.46 versus usual care (CI, –2.14, –0.78; P ≤0.001 versus UC). The difference in BPI pain severity reduction from baseline between electroacupuncture and auricular acupuncture of –0.90 (CI, –1.45, –0.36) was statistically significant (P ≤0.001). Electroacupuncture also reduced pain severity significantly more than auricular acupuncture at week 24 (CI, –0.82, [–1.38, –0.27], P = 0.004).

Dr. Zhi concluded that among breast cancer survivors, although both electroacupuncture and auricular acupuncture were associated with clinically meaningful and persistent pain reduction, electroacupuncture was more effective at reducing pain severity.

She pointed out also that neither surgery type (mastectomy versus lumpectomy; P = 0.83) nor aromatase inhibitor versus tamoxifen versus neither (P = 0.59) was associated with BPI/severity response among electroacupuncture and auricular acupuncture patients.

“Both electroacupuncture and auricular acupuncture are significantly better than usual care, so it suggests that both acupuncture methods can be utilized for treating chronic muscle skeletal pain in breast cancer survivors, but electroacupuncture is preferred,” Dr. Zhi said.

“Auricular acupuncture can be more painful,” said PEACE principal investigator Jun Mao, MD, who is chair of integrative medicine at Memorial Sloan Kettering. “Ten percent of women could not tolerate the ear pain or discomfort. Electroacupuncture is generally well tolerated. People are more relaxed after treatment. If both are available, start with electroacupuncture,” he said.

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