Acupressure Helps With Post-Treatment Breast Cancer Pain

Researchers report positive effects on fatigue, depression, anxiety, and pain.

Posted Jan 23, 2019

Patricia Prijatel
Source: Patricia Prijatel

Acupressure improved some of the most common side effects of breast cancer treatment, including chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and poor sleep, according to a study published in JNCI Cancer Spectrum this week.

In the study, 424 breast cancer patients who reported fatigue were randomly placed into groups receiving either acupressure or traditional care, which included sleep-management techniques. They were taught to find and stimulate acupressure points so that they could continue the process at home and were trained to practice it once per day for six weeks.

But, as anybody who has walked this road knows, patients don't usually have just one side effect. Researchers found that half of the women had at least one other symptom and 17 percent experienced all of the issues included in the study. In total, 288 patients reported symptoms in addition to fatigue, such as sleep quality, depression, anxiety, and pain.  

"It was actually unusual for a woman to have just fatigue. These long-term side effects are a big problem. For some women, they are significant barriers in their life," said study author Suzanna M. Zick, N.D., MPH, a research associate professor of family medicine at Michigan Medicine.

Researchers tested two types of acupressure: relaxing acupressure, traditionally used to treat insomnia, and stimulating acupressure, used to increase energy. The two techniques differ according to the points on the body that are stimulated. 

Both types of acupressure were more effective than standard care for improving anxiety and pain, especially pain that interfered with daily life. Relaxing acupressure was significantly better than stimulating acupressure or standard care at improving depressive symptoms and sleep.

"If you have a person who is fatigued and depressed, it would be the obvious conclusion to use relaxing acupressure. For anxiety or pain, either approach might work," Zick said.

Researchers also found that improving symptoms of depression improved sleep quality, accounting for about 20 percent of the improvement in fatigue.

"That means we don't know 80 percent of what's impacting fatigue. Depressive symptoms and sleep quality are a small part, and it makes sense. But clearly, there are other factors," Zick said.

She said she suspects these symptoms impact the brain in multiple ways, meaning that effective treatments will likely need to be customized to a woman's symptoms and specific needs.

Previous research by Zick and colleagues studied only fatigue and showed similar results for acupressure. At that time, Zick commented, "Fatigue is an under-appreciated symptom across a lot of chronic diseases, especially cancer. It has a significant impact on quality of life. Acupressure is easy to learn and patients can do it themselves.”  

Working with U-M College of Engineering experts, researchers have developed a wand to assist patients in performing acupressure, ensuring ensure appropriate pressure and tracking how long patients use it.


Suzanna Maria Zick, Ananda Sen, Afton Luevano Hassett, Andrew Schrepf, Gwen Karilyn Wyatt, Susan Lynn Murphy, John Todd Arnedt, Richard Edmund Harris. Impact of Self-Acupressure on Co-Occurring Symptoms in Cancer Survivors. JNCI Cancer Spectrum, 2018; 2 (4) DOI: 10.1093/jncics/pky064