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After breast cancer: Acupressure eases persistent side effects

A woman in teal scrubs puts her arm around a woman in a white headscarf. They tilt their heads together and smile.

Feb. 4, 2019—Breast cancer survivors who struggle with lingering side effects may get some relief from acupressure, suggests a study in the journal JNCI Cancer Spectrum. And it's a treatment people can do by themselves, any time.

Many women experience fatigue long after their breast cancer treatment ends. Previous research has shown that acupressure helps with that fatigue. But researchers wanted to know if it might also help with depression, pain, anxiety and sleep problems. That's important to know, because these symptoms often go hand-in-hand with fatigue in breast cancer survivors.

For the study, one group of women learned to give themselves acupressure treatments once each day for six weeks. In acupressure, you use your fingers, thumbs or a device to apply pressure to specific points on your body (such as the shoulders, hands, knees and feet). The treatment is rooted in traditional Chinese medicine. In the U.S., it's considered a type of alternative, also called complementary, medicine.

The researchers tested two types of self-acupressure:

  • Relaxing (traditionally used for insomnia).
  • Stimulating (traditionally used to boost energy).

The women in the other group received usual care for their fatigue, such as advice to help them sleep, but no acupressure instruction.

Feeling better

Acupressure seemed to work better than usual care, at least in the short term. But the two different types might have different effects. For example:

  • Relaxing acupressure worked best for depression and sleep.
  • Either type of acupressure worked better than usual care for anxiety and pain.
However, except for anxiety, the improvements in all these symptoms were temporary. They were evident immediately after the study but seemed to disappear in the following weeks.

How does acupressure work? It could be the placebo effect, according to the researchers. More studies are needed. But it looks like acupressure may be a good way to help ease at least some side effects for breast cancer survivors. What's more, acupressure is an inexpensive treatment, since women can learn to do it themselves at home.

Learn more about complementary medicine

Check out our Alternative Medicine health topic center.

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