Almost 80% of women get hot flashes, night sweats, or both during menopause. For more than half of women, those unpleasant symptoms last 7 to 10 years and can majorly affect sleep, comfort, and quality of life.
Hormone therapy is currently the most effective treatment for hot flashes, but it’s associated with health risks and side effects, so many women seek alternative treatments. Unfortunately, herbal supplements and dietary remedies can have side effects of their own, and studies on their effectiveness have been mixed.
Recent research has suggested that acupuncture can provide hot-flash relief for breast cancer patients, and this new randomized trial offers further evidence that it may work for menopausal women, as well.
The study, published this week in the journal Menopause, included 209 women ages 45 to 60, who were going through or had recently gone through menopause. All women had at least four hot flashes or night sweats per day, on average.
Health.com: The Best Sheets to Keep You Cool All Night Long
The participants were divided into two groups; about 20% of the women received usual care from their doctor over the next six months, while the other 80% received usual care plus 20acupuncture treatments.
The study authors based their study results on how the participants felt after eight weeks, which equaled about eight acupuncture treatments on average. At that point, 47% of the women in the acupuncture group reported a 47% reduction in hot flashes and 12% reported a major reduction (85%) in symptoms.
That’s the good news. The treatment wasn’t as promising for everyone, however: Another 37% of women showed only a minimal (9.6%) reduction in hot-flash frequency—and 4% said the number of hot flashes they’d experienced had actually doubled.
In the non-acupuncture group—which had been instructed to keep doing what they'd been doing to treat their hot flashes, but to not start any new treatments—about 80% of the women reported a small decrease, just 10%, in symptom frequency at Week 8.
Health.com: 5 Perimenopause Symptoms Every Woman Should Know
For the women who did benefit from acupuncture, most felt improvement after about three or four weeks. “Women will know pretty quickly if acupuncture will work for them,” said lead author Nancy Avis, PhD, professor of public health sciences at Wake Forest School of Medicine, in a press release.
Experts aren’t sure why acupuncture seems to help hot flashes, but some speculate that it prompts blood vessel dilation and stimulates the release of painkilling endorphins, or that it triggers the production of stress and mood-regulating hormones. Acupuncture may also have an effect on the brain's hypothalamus, Avis told Health, which helps control the body's response to temperature changes.
It's also possible that the "placebo effect" influenced the results, she says, since the women knew they were getting treatment that could potentially reduce their symptoms. (Sometimes researchers use "sham acupuncture"—the insertion of needles in parts of the body not thought to be helpful—as a control group for these types of studies because a treatment of any kind, whether it's real or not, can make people feel better.)
"However, we did not find that women who had greater expectations that acupuncture would help their hot flashes did any better than women who had lower expectations," Avis says.
The study was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, part of the National Institutes of Health.
Health.com: 8 Diet Changes Women Must Make After 40
The researchers had hoped to identify why some women benefited from the treatment while others didn’t, but they were unable to definitively pinpoint any unifying characteristics. There was some indication that women who responded best to acupuncture had low levels of depression, anxiety, and perceived stress, but those results were not statistically significant.
They hope that future research will allow them to determine these characteristics, providing further guidance that doctors and acupuncture practitioners can use to advise patients and clients.
Until then, acupuncture may still be a promising option for women—not just because it may actually work, but because it has fewer side effects than medication; it’s sometimes evencovered by insurance.
“Women bothered by hot flashes and night sweats may want to give acupuncture a try as a relatively low-cost, low-risk treatment,” Avis says.