'Electroacupuncture' Eases Woes After Breast Surgery

Study: Electric simulation quells queasiness, dulls pain

MONDAY, Oct. 15, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- A shocking twist on acupuncture may help women who undergo major breast surgery recover with less nausea and pain, new research says.

Scientists say electrical stimulation that mimics needle pricks is more effective than the leading anti-nausea drug at controlling the lingering effects of anesthesia in women who undergo surgery for breast cancer, breast reduction, or breast enlargement. They also say it eases postoperative pain.

The work was presented Sunday in New Orleans at a meeting of the American Society of Anesthesiologists.

Acupuncture, the ages-old traditional Chinese remedy that uses needles to re-channel the body's life force (chi), can ease pain in patients with a variety of diseases. And the therapy also works to soothe nausea associated with surgery and virtually any other medical procedure or problem, from chemotherapy to morning sickness, says Dr. Kenneth Conklin, an anesthesiologist and cancer specialist at the University of California at Los Angeles. Indeed, the National Institutes of Health has endorsed the regimen for this purpose.

Conklin, who helps teach the acupuncture course at UCLA, offers the needle treatment to his cancer patients in addition to their drugs and radiation. He calls it "a tremendous benefit" for those who choose the therapy. Not only does the treatment ease their pain and nausea, but it also helps them put on weight and feel more energetic -- while avoiding the side effects of anti-nausea drugs.

In the new study, led by anesthesiologist Dr. Tong Joo Gan, Duke University researchers compared acupuncture with the anti-emetic drug ondansetron (Zofran) in 40 women undergoing major breast surgery. The women were split into three groups: one that received acupuncture only, one that got ondansetron, and one that received placebo treatment.

The technique Gan and his colleagues used is called electroacupuncture, which relies on electric probes rather than needles and doesn't need to break the skin. The researchers placed electrodes at a region of the wrist known as the pericardial meridian, home to one of 14 acupuncture lines Chinese healers have mapped.

The electrodes, placed before and during surgery, deliver pulses of energy at two alternating frequencies, 15 hertz and 100 hertz, which creates a tingling and often warm sensation, Gan says. That feeling corresponds to a healthful balance in chi, he adds.

Two hours after coming out of surgery, only 23 percent of women treated with acupuncture said they were nauseated, compared with 36 percent of those who took the drug and almost 70 percent of those who didn't get either therapy, the researchers say.

Nausea grew over the course of the day, but after 24 hours patients in the acupuncture group were still less likely to feel nauseated than those in either the drug or placebo group.

Women who received either acupuncture or ondansetron reported less vomiting than untreated patients, both early after surgery and 24 hours later.

Acupuncture also seemed to make a significant dent in moderate or severe postoperative pain, the researchers say, proving about twice as effective as either the drug or no treatment.

"The degree of nausea appears to be better," says Gan, and "the acupuncture group appears to have better control of pain compared to patients in the standard treatment arm."

Of course, there are some things for which acupuncture isn't useful. Fighting infection or treating cancer, for example, aren't appropriate chores for the therapy, says Dr. Peter Johnstone, a radiation oncologist and acupuncturist at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego.

But in general, acupuncture is a good approach to dispelling symptoms of a wide range of ailments. "It won't fix a herniated disc, but it may ameliorate some of the pain," Johnstone says.

What To Do

If you're interested in acupuncture, talk with your doctor. But don't be surprised if he isn't particularly encouraging, Conklin says. Many Western-trained physicians don't know much about Chinese medicine.

However, the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture has a list of practicing doctors across the country that can be accessed by state.

You can also find out more about the procedure at About.com.

SOURCES: Interviews with Tong Joo Gan, M.D., associate professor, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, N.C.; Peter Johnstone, M.D., Naval Medical Center, San Diego; Kenneth Conklin, M.D., Ph.D., clinical professor, University of California, Los Angeles; Duke University news release; American Society of Anesthesiologists meeting abstract
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