, Volume 1, Issue 4, pp 283-291
Date: 12 Oct 2007

Pilot study of acupuncture for the treatment of joint symptoms related to adjuvant aromatase inhibitor therapy in postmenopausal breast cancer patients

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Aromatase inhibitors (AIs) have become the standard of care for the adjuvant treatment of postmenopausal, hormone-sensitive breast cancer. However, patients receiving AIs may experience joint symptoms, which may lead to early discontinuation of this effective therapy. We hypothesize that acupuncture is a safe and effective treatment for AI-induced arthralgias.


Postmenopausal women with early-stage breast cancer who had self-reported musculoskeletal pain related to adjuvant AI therapy were randomized in a crossover study to receive acupuncture twice weekly for 6 weeks followed by observation or vice-versa. The intervention included full body and auricular acupuncture, and a joint-specific point prescription. Outcome measures included the Brief Pain Inventory-Short Form (BPI-SF), Western Ontario and McMaster Universities Osteoarthritis (WOMAC) index, the Functional Assessment of Cancer Therapy-General (FACT-G) quality of life measure, and serum levels of inflammatory markers, IL-1β and TNF-α.


Twenty-one women were enrolled and two discontinued early. From baseline to the end of treatment, patients reported improvement in the mean BPI-SF worst pain scores (5.3 to 3.3, p = 0.01), pain severity (3.7 to 2.5, p = 0.02), and pain-related functional interference (3.1 to 1.7, p = 0.02), as well as the WOMAC function subscale and FACT-G physical well-being (p = 0.02 and 0.04, respectively). No adverse events were reported.


In this pilot study, acupuncture reduced AI-related joint symptoms and improved functional ability and was well-tolerated.

Implications for cancer survivors

Musculoskeletal side effects are common among breast cancer survivors on adjuvant AI therapy, therefore, effective treatments are needed for symptom relief and to improve adherence to these life-saving medications.

Dr. Crew was the recipient of an NCI-funded postdoctoral fellowship (T32-CA09529) and a Lance Armstrong Young Investigator Award. Dr. Hershman is the recipient of a K07 Award from the NCI (CA95597). This research was funded by a grant from Women at Risk and the Avon Foundation.