Women with severe hot flashes, mood swings, and other menopausal symptoms don't have a lot of great options, since the hormones and antidepressants sometimes used to ease the problems come with some significant risks. So a study out this week in the British Medical Journal--Acupuncture in Medicine suggesting that acupuncture might help at least some women is welcome news--though not surprising to physicians like me, who are trained in the medical use and scientific reasoning of this ancient Chinese therapy.
Turkish researchers randomly assigned 53 women with menopausal symptoms whose periods had stopped for at least a year to receive either real acupuncture or "sham" acupuncture using blunted needles that are designed to appear as though they penetrate the skin without actually doing so. After 10 sessions with a licensed practitioner who had at least six years of experience, women treated with acupuncture reported significantly fewer hot flashes
and mood swings. Additional sessions appeared to offer additional benefits, particularly against hot flashes.
Traditional Chinese acupuncture is usually explained through unscientific terms such as Qi (life energy), Ying and Yang, the Five Elements, and meridians. But the current study, along with a growing body of additional research, is beginning to uncover the science behind acupuncture, and helps explain how it might help a number of conditions, including pain as well as nausea from chemotherapy or pregnancy
For example, scientists can now measure changes in neurotransmitters or hormones that are triggered by stimulating the musculoskeletal system at known acupuncture "points," or meridians. And MRI or PET scans to visualize changes in the central nervous system. In this acupuncture and menopause study, researchers measured levels of two hormones--estradiol and luteinizing hormone--both of which normally decline with the onset of menopausal symptoms. Estradiol levels actually rose slightly in women receiving acupuncture treatment. In addition, acupuncture might boost endorphins, which could help stabilize body temperature as well as mood.
Acupuncture typically poses few risks when performed by an experienced, licensed practitioner or medical doctor trained in acupuncture. So I would recommend it, along with an individualized nutritional and exercise program, for some women with menopausal symptoms.
-- Joseph Mosquera, M.D., is a board-certified physician also trained in integrative medicine and a ConsumerReportsHealth.org adviser.
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