NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – For women who suffer severe hot flashes during breast cancer treatment, acupuncture may provide effective, long-lasting relief of this treatment side effect, according to research presented today at the 50th annual meeting of the American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology in Boston.

Study presenter Dr. Eleanor Walker of the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit told Reuters Health: “A lot of women who are treated for breast cancer with chemotherapy and especially those who have to take anti-estrogen hormones like tamoxifen develop severe hot flashes. They go into a premature or sometimes a second menopause.”

Currently available treatments to combat hot flashes related to breast cancer treatment are “not great,” she added. Steroids make women gain weight and the antidepressant Effexor (generic name, venlafaxine) — the current therapy of choice — is associated with sexual dysfunction and nausea. Hormone replacement therapy is not an option in these women.

In the study, 47 women with breast cancer receiving either Arimidex (anastrozole) or tamoxifen (known by the trade name Nolvadex in the U.S.), and having at least 14 hot flashes per week were randomly assigned to a 12-week course of acupuncture or Effexor. The women kept a log of their flashes for 1 week before the study, during the course of treatment and at regular intervals for up to 1 year after the study.

“In traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture has been used for hot flashes and we found that acupuncture was just as effective as Effexor in decreasing hot flashes in women who got it,” Walker said.

And while “numerous patients” receiving Effexor reported negative side effects including nausea, dry mouth, headache, dizziness, difficulty sleeping, increased blood pressure, constipation, acupuncture had no side effects and the beneficial effects lasted.”

“It’s only at about the 14th week after they finished acupuncture that women started having an increase in the number of their hot flashes, whereas the women who got Effexor started having hot flashes within 2 weeks of stopping the medication,” Walker told Reuters Health.

Moreover, acupuncture had the added benefit of increased energy, clarity of thought, overall sense of well-being and some women even had an increase in their sex drive, she said.

The researchers are hopeful that their findings will encourage more insurance companies to pay for acupuncture for women with breast cancer.