Aromatase inhibitor-induced arthralgia (AIA) is the most common side effect of aromatase inhibitors (AIs) used in breast cancer patients and is related to the rate of adherence to AIs. The clinical effects of acupuncture on AIA have been assessed by some randomized controlled trials (RCTs). However, some studies reported that acupuncture was effective, while others claimed that it was ineffective. To clarify the clinical and placebo effects of acupuncture in treating AIA, we conducted this meta-analysis.
Two reviewers (XL and GW) independently searched for RCTs in 5 English databases (PubMed, Web of Science, Embase, Springer, Cochrane Library) and 4 Chinese databases (China National Knowledge Infrastructure Database (CNKI), SinoMed, VIP and Wanfang Database) from their inception to 30 November 2019. Following the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) guidelines, this meta-analysis was performed by fixed or random-effects models, and data were pooled with mean differences (MDs).
Seven trials involving 603 patients were reviewed. The primary outcome, the Brief Pain Inventory (BPI) score, significantly differed between the acupuncture and control groups [pain-related interference: MD = -1.89, 95% confidence interval (CI) [-2.99, -0.79],  = 3.36 ( = .008 < .05), pain severity: MD = -1.57, 95% CI [-2.46, -0.68],  = 3.45 ( = .0006 < .05), worst pain: MD = -2.31, 95% CI [-3.15, -1.48],  = 5.47 ( < .0001 < .05)]. No severe adverse events were reported in any study.
This meta-analysis showed that acupuncture is a safe and effective treatment for breast cancer patients with AIA. Additional research with improved blinding methods is warranted to further explore the nature of non-specific and placebo effects in true and sham acupuncture.