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Can acupressure relieve long-term symptoms in breast cancer survivors?

Researchers investigated the effects of acupressure on chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and poor sleep in breast cancer survivors.

Long after finishing treatment, many breast cancer patients experience persistent symptoms of fatigue, chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and poor sleep.

These long-term symptoms have a great impact on patient’s quality of life and affect their ability to return to normal day-to-day activities.

Researchers at the University of Michigan in the United States have already shown that self-acupressure, a type of traditional Chinese medicine, can help to relieve fatigue symptoms in breast cancer survivors.

In a new analysis, they looked at the effects of self-acupressure on other long-term symptoms including chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and poor sleep. They recently reported their findings in the JNCI Cancer Spectrum.

Breast cancer survivors were taught relaxing or stimulating self-acupressure techniques

In the initial study, the researchers randomized 424 breast cancer survivors who had completed cancer treatments at least 12 months previously and who reported persistent fatigue into three groups: relaxing acupressure, stimulating acupressure, or usual care (control group).

Apart from fatigue symptoms, the patients were also asked about chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and sleep quality.

A total of 288 patients reported at least one of these symptoms in addition to fatigue and this patient subgroup was included in the new analysis.

Self-acupressure involves applying pressure (with fingers or a pressure device) to specific points on the body according to traditional Chinese medicine teachings. Relaxing acupressure points are used to treat insomnia, whereas stimulating acupressure points are used to increase energy.

The researchers instructed patients in the acupressure groups on how to perform relaxing or stimulating self-acupressure.

Patients in the usual care group were given advice on sleep management techniques. Self-acupressure was administered once daily for 6 weeks followed by a 4-week break.

The researchers used standardized questionnaires to collect face-to-face information from patients on depression and anxiety symptoms, sleep quality, and pain at the start of the trial and at weeks 6 and 10. They collected information on fatigue symptoms weekly.

After six weeks, relaxing acupressure was significantly better than stimulating acupressure or usual care at relieving depressive symptoms and poor sleep. Both types of acupressure were more effective than the control therapy for improving anxiety, the severity of pain, and pain interfering with daily life.

The researchers also investigated whether helping one symptom could have an impact on other symptoms.

They found that improving symptoms of depression improved sleep quality and accounted for around a 20% improvement in fatigue.

Self-acupressure improved fatigue and other long-term symptoms

This subgroup analysis showed that, in addition to improving fatigue, self-acupressure can improve symptoms of anxiety, depression, and chronic pain in breast cancer survivors.

The body mechanisms involved in these effects are not clear but may include several brain pathways. The researchers are planning brain imaging studies to investigate the brain pathways involved.

Meanwhile, they are also working on practical tools such as a “wand” to assist patients in performing self-acupressure, and an acupressure app to support patients.

Dr. Suzanna Zick, one of the lead study authors, suggests that self-acupressure treatments will need to be tailored based on a woman’s particular symptoms.

She added that acupressure is an appealing treatment option for long-term symptoms in cancer survivors as it can be easily taught and performed at home with minimal negative effects.

Written by Julie McShane, Medical Writer


  1. Zick SM, Sen A, Hassett AL, et al. Impact of self-acupressure on co-occurring symptoms in cancer survivors. JNCI Cancer Spectrum, 2018, 2(4):pky064.
  2. Press release, Michigan Medicine – University of Michigan,16 Jan 2019. Acupressure relieves long-term symptoms of breast cancer treatment, study finds.
Julie Mcshane MA MB BS
Julie Mcshane MA MB BS
Julie studied medicine at the Universities of Cambridge and London, UK. Whilst in medical practice, she developed an interest in medical writing and moved to a career in medical communications. She worked with companies in London and Hong Kong on a wide variety of medical education projects. Originally from Ireland, Julie is now based in Dublin, where she is a freelance medical writer. She enjoys contributing to the Medical News Bulletin to help provide a source of accurate and clear information about the latest developments in medical research.


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