Acupuncture may reduce menopause symptoms, including hot flashes—at least compared to doing nothing, according to a Danish study in BMJ Open of 70 women with moderate-to-severe complaints.
Half the women were randomized to receive acupuncture once a week for five weeks; the other half received no treatment. Compared to the no-treatment group and to their own baseline levels, those in the acupuncture group had a significant decrease in hot flashes, as assessed by the MenoScores Questionnaire given at baseline and during and after the study. They also reported greater reductions in day-and-night sweats, general sweating, sleeping problems, emotional symptoms, and physical symptoms (which include heart palpitations, headaches, and joint pain), as well as improvements in skin and hair appearance.
Overall, 80 percent of the women in the acupuncture group thought the treatment had beneficial effects. No changes were seen, however, in memory or in urinary or vaginal symptoms.
The acupuncture was well tolerated (only one participant in the intervention group dropped out). The study was carried out at nine primary care practices by general practitioners trained in acupuncture and was standardized so that all participants received the same protocol, with the needles inserted for just 10 minutes. None of the women received any other menopause treatment during the study or in the four weeks prior to the study.
A 2013 Cochrane Collaboration research review also reported benefits of acupuncture for hot flashes, compared to no treatment—though it found that real and sham acupuncture generally had similar effects. (Sham acupuncture involves, for instance, using needles that merely prick the skin, are inserted superficially, or are inserted in locations other than true acupuncture points.) Because the studies evaluated were of low quality, the evidence was deemed insufficient to determine whether acupuncture really helps.
Studying acupuncture is challenging because it’s hard to come up with an adequate placebo comparison (sham acupuncture, not used in the new study, may have some real effects itself and so might not be a true placebo). Nor is there a way to easily “blind” the participants regarding the intervention. Therefore, a placebo effect—what occurs due to patient expectations—cannot generally be ruled out, meaning that any observed benefit of acupuncture may not be a true physiological effect of the needling. The belief by the acupuncturists that the treatment has benefits may even intensify the placebo effect.
Still, while the study had limitations, acupuncture for menopause may be a reasonable option for women who cannot or do not want to be on hormone therapy, which is proven effective but carries some risks.
This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.
Also see Cooling Hot Flashes, Without Drugs.