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Release says study ‘confirms benefits’ of electro-acupuncture for hot flashes; doesn’t tell us what benefits are

Electro-acupuncture for disrupted sleep in women with breast cancer

Our Review Summary

sleepless woman, Awake at NightThis short release reports on a small study looking at whether electro-acupuncture is effective in diminishing night-time hot flashes among breast cancer survivors, and therefore, improving the quality of their sleep.  While it states that this therapeutic approach is as good as, or perhaps better, than a drug (gabapentin) often prescribed for hot flashes, the release offers no data showing the extent of improvement, nor are there mentions of the cost of such treatments, or of potential harms from using it which, while not enormous, are not negligible either.  The release also neglects to identify any of the researchers involved in the trial.

 

Why This Matters

More and more people are surviving breast cancer and there is increasing interest among survivors and clinicians about quality of life for survivors.  As the release states, perhaps 6 million patients may have survived by the year 2020, meaning even serious discomforts like hot flashes among such patients will become a growing problem. The release hints that this approach may be effective for such people, but it fails to provide aspects critical to really evaluating this “news.”

Criteria

Does the news release adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

There was no mention in the release as to the cost of electro-acupuncture, although a quick search on the web revealed that the costs per session could range anywhere from $60 to $150.  Nor did the release give any information about the number of sessions required to acheive improved sleep — a single one or multiple.  Lastly, the release gives no indication whether Medicare or health insurance plan will cover electro-acupuncture, a factor that can affect whether many patients would choose this treatment.

Does the news release adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The release stated that the use of electro-acupuncture was “comparable to, if not better than” the drug (gabapentin) that was used in this comparative study in reducing “hot flash severity and frequency and improving overall sleep quality.”  This kind of vague statement doesn’t help readers looking for some quantification, or degree of change, provided by this alternative therapy.

The release also states that “although electro-acupuncture produced significant sleep improvements, researchers noted that sleep quality for the participants was still not as good as it should be.”  But again, there is no scale of benchmark provided which would help a reader gauge the effectiveness, and therefore the worth, of trying electro-acupuncture.

Does the news release adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The release makes no mention of potential harms or side effects from the use of electro-acupuncture, which like traditional acupuncture, is considered to be of relatively low risk.  But neither is without risk entirely, given that infection is possible along with bleeding or other injury.  Electro-acupuncture is not suggested for people with heart problems, strokes, seizures or epilepsy, nor should it be used by patients with cardiac pacemakers since the small current used can disrupt the function of these devices. These risks should have been included in the release.

Does the news release seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

The release provides no details about how the study was conducted or about the participants in the study, especially regarding their overall health, the length and type of treatment they had for their breast cancer, or the length of time since their breast cancer diagnosis and  treatment.  Nor does the release include any specifics  about how the participants’ sleep and specific aspects of their sleep were measured.

The release does say that the research involved a “randomized, controlled trial,” which offers some detail, as does the fact that “58 breast cancer survivors” who experienced bothersome hot flashes participated. But 58 is considered a small study size. The release correctly points out that “blinded controlled trials are needed.”

Does the news release commit disease-mongering?

Not Satisfactory

This release steps over the line in suggesting that hot flashes — a normal part of menopause for some women and especially for breast cancer survivors — is like a disease unto itself that always requires medical treatment.  According to Johns Hopkins University, about 75 percent of all women going through menopause experience hot flashes, the most common symptom of menopause. Many are able to manage their symptoms through simple, inexpensive lifestyle changes.  

Does the news release identify funding sources & disclose conflicts of interest?

Satisfactory

The release notes that the research was funded in part by the National Cancer Institute but it makes no mention of potential conflicts of interest on the part of the researchers involved. We’ll give them the benefit of the doubt here since we don’t have access to the full published study to verify who the funders are or assess whether there are financial conflicts of interest.  We encourage news releases to always disclose whether or not there are conflicts.

Does the news release compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The release points out that electro-acupuncture was compared with the drug gabapentin. But there are numerous other alternatives to both a fairly powerful drug with its own side effects and electro-acupuncture.  There are many other ways to help one sleep while experiencing hot flashes such as non-hormonal medications and lifestyle changes — dressing in layers, lowering the thermostat, staying away from caffeine — to name a few.

Does the news release establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The release doesn’t mention where or if electro-acupuncture is available to patients who desire such treatments.

Does the news release establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

The release claims in the subhead that the “Study confirms benefits versus gabapentin for helping breast cancer survivors suffering from hot flashes achieve better sleep” but given that no additional information is provided in the release, it is hard to find such a vague conclusion is novel enough to warrant issuing a news release. Moreover, it appears that acupuncture has been used extensively in previous studies for hot flashes in breast cancer patients, so some comment on that approach, and how “electro-acupunture” might differ, is warranted.

Total Score: 2 of 10 Satisfactory

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