Acupuncture and menopause

 

Acupuncture and menopause

 

A recent study has concluded that a short course of acupuncture could significantly reduce some unpleasant symptoms of menopause.

The symptoms of menopause can reduce overall wellbeing and significantly affect every part of life. Although the symptoms are treatable, current methods are not perfect.

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can be effective for many people, but comes with side effects and can increase the risk of developing breast cancer. For this reason, other people choose nonhormonal therapies. However, these can also cause unpleasant side effects, such as sleep disturbance, dizziness, nausea, and fatigue.

Finding nonpharmaceutical interventions for menopause symptoms is high on the agenda for these reasons.

 

An alternative approach

A recent study has investigated whether acupuncture could be used to relieve the symptoms of menopause. Although this subject has been studied previously, definitive evidence has not yet been found.

The authors of the study wrote that previous studies “have been criticized for methodological limitations, for example, poor design, inadequate sample size, inadequate control or placebo groups, absence of standardized protocols, and a lack of data on adverse effects.”

 

Acupuncture and hot flashes

The team decided to focus primarily on reducing the occurrence of hot flashes. Hot flashes affect more than three quarters of people who experience the menopause, and can continue for a number of years.

The study recruited 70 women who were experiencing menopause. Half of the participants were given one 15 minute session of standardised acupuncture a week over a period of five weeks. The acupuncturists were all experienced practitioners, with an average of 14 years’ worth of experience.

The other half of the participants were the control group, and received no intervention.

Each participant completed a questionnaire to assess their symptoms. The questionnaires were completed at the beginning of the study, and then after 3, 6, 8, 11, and 26 weeks. The questionnaire covered the most common menopause symptoms, including hot flashes, sleep problems, memory changes, urinary and vaginal symptoms, and skin changes.

By the week 3 questionnaire, the acupuncture group began noting a decrease in hot flashes. By the 6 week questionnaire, 80% of women in the acupuncture group believed that the sessions had helped them.

As well as hot flashes, the group receiving acupuncture also noted significant reduction in the severity of frequency of sweating, sleep disturbances, skin and hair problems, and emotional symptoms.

 

The placebo problem

Despite the results being statistically significant, the authors noted some limitations of the study – there were few participants, and the duration of the study was short.

There was also no placebo to use in the study, as there is no acupuncture placebo comparator. The placebo effect can be particularly strong in situations where individuals are receiving treatments from a practitioner.

The team have stated that sham acupuncture may be useful to use in future studies. To the untrained eye, sham acupuncture appears to be the same as standard acupuncture, but the practitioner does not pierce the skin or use the needles at specific acupuncture points.

Sham acupuncture, is not an ideal control, as a placebo intervention should be inactive. Sham acupuncture can have more of a significant effect than other, truly inactive placebos.

The authors explained, “a study testing sham versus real acupuncture is not a placebo-controlled study but rather a study testing two different types of acupuncture.”

The lack of a suitable placebo is a hinderance to the study of acupuncture, and benefits could be received from other factors, such as attention from the practitioner, a relaxing break, soothing words, and expectations from the treatment.

As the authors acknowledge, “although [the acupuncturists] were instructed to behave neutrally, their beliefs in acupuncture could have affected their interaction with the participants and possibly have intensified a placebo effect.”

However, for women who have vowed not to use standard treatments for their menopause symptoms, acupuncture could be a viable option – whether its benefits are placebo or not.

 

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