Cancer-related fatigue is a common side effect that occurs during treatment for cancer such as breast cancer. This extreme weakness and exhaustion can last for an extended period of time and can make it difficult to complete daily tasks and affect quality of life. Treatment usually includes medications, therapy, and rest. However, alternative treatments, such as sleep and relaxation techniques, support groups, and cognitive behavioral therapy are gaining notice.
Researchers wanted to investigate whether self-administered acupressure improved fatigue, sleep, and quality of life versus usual care in breast cancer survivors. Acupressure uses the fingers instead of needles to press key points in the surface of the skin. The study, published in JAMA Oncology, showed that acupressure reduced persistent fatigue.
The randomized trial included 288 survivors of stages 0 to III breast cancer who had completed treatments at least 12 months prior to the screening. 270 participants were randomized to relaxing acupressure, stimulating acupressure, or usual care consisting of sleep management technique training. Participants were trained to deliver acupressure to themselves once daily for 6 weeks.
Participants who remained in the study took a brief fatigue inventory survey at weeks 6 and again 4 weeks after treatment stopped. The percentage of participants who reached normal fatigue scores are as follows:
Relaxing acupressure, but not stimulating acupressure, showed significant improvements in sleep quality compared with usual care at week 6, but not persist after treatment stopped. Only relaxing acupressure significantly improved quality of life when compared to usual care at both weeks 6 and 4 weeks after treatment stopped.
A randomized trial is considered the most reliable form of research, but how the research is done will affect its reliability. Some women did report bruising at the acupressure sites while others withdrew because they found it too time intensive. The combination of difficulty with adherence and need to continue to see benefits may make it a less reliable option. More studies will need to be done to determine how acupressure improves breast cancer-related fatigue and whether it does so for other types of cancer-related fatigue as well.
Acupressure is a low-cost treatment option that is an easy technique to learn to do for yourself. However, doing it consistently may prove problematic. If you are struggling with breast cancer-related fatigue, talk to your doctor about which options may work best for you. A combination of treatments including good sleep hygiene, adjustments to medical care, and alternatives like acupressure may work best. Try different options until you find the combination that works best for you.
American Cancer Society
National Cancer Institute
Breast cancer in women. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated April 26, 2016. Accessed July 25, 2016.
Zick S, Sen A, et al. Investigation of 2 types of self-administered acupressure for persistent cancer-related fatigue in breast cancer survivors. JAMA Oncol. 2016 Jul 7.
Last reviewed July 2016 by Michael Woods, MD