Breast cancer patients who experience pain and swelling related to their treatment may find relief in acupuncture and exercise, new research suggests. The two studies have been published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute Monographs.

In one study, acupuncture helped reduce joint pain by up to 40 percent, study author Jun Mao, M.D., director of the integrative oncology program at the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, told HealthDay. And it didn’t matter if people thought it would work or not, he found.

Mao and colleagues studied 41 breast cancer survivors, assigning them to a sham acupuncture group or an electroacupuncture group, and compared them to a control group that got neither treatment.

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Those in the real acupuncture group had a consistent level of pain reduction, Mao said. In the sham group, if there was a low expectation, no change in pain was reported. “For those [in the sham group] with extremely high expectations, their effect was as strong as 80 percent,” he said.

In a second study, University of Pennsylvania researchers looked at how a community-based exercise program could help women affected by lymphedema, muscle problems, and decreased body image that can occur after breast cancer. In all, 67 breast cancer patients completed measurements of the effects after a year. These participants had improvements in symptoms, body image, and muscular strength.

The results in the community setting were similar to those found in the research setting. However, the researchers did note issues that were encountered in getting the program operational, including payments, the need for advocates, and how to get patients referred so it would be covered by insurance.


  1. Bauml, Joshua, et al. “Expectancy in Real and Sham Electroacupuncture: Does Believing Make It So?” JNCI Monographs. doi: 10.1093/jncimonographs/lgu029. November 2014.
  2. Beidas, Rinad S., et al. “A Hybrid Effectiveness-Implementation Trial of an Evidence-Based Exercise Intervention for Breast Cancer Survivors.” JNCI Monographs. doi: 10.1093/jncimonographs/lgu033. November 2014.