May 27, 2014 11:13 AM EDT

For many women, the symptoms of menopause can feel unbearable, especially those hot flashes and night sweats. Although there’s continuous debate over the risks and benefits of hormone therapy, current recommendations are that women undergoing treatment should take the smallest dose for only a brief period of time. For women who want care for longer, there’s a desire for a non-hormonal alternative.

Estrogen therapy tends to be the go-to treatment, but Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) researchers looked at whether a non-hormonal treatment called venlafaxine hydrochloride is just as effective. Generally, the authors note, venlafaxine hydrochloride is thought to be an inferior treatment.

(MORE: The Truth About Hormones)

The researchers had 339 perimenopausal and postmenopausal women with at least two bothersome symptoms a day take either estrogen therapy, venlafaxine hydrochloride, or a placebo. They discovered that estrogen therapy and venlafaxine hydrochloride were similarly successful at combating menopause-related problems.

After eight weeks, hot flash and night sweat frequency went down by 52.9% among the women taking low-dose estradiol (estrogen therapy) and 47.6% among women taking venlafaxine. Symptoms went down by 28.6% for women taking placebo. The researchers acknowledge that while the findings show estrogen therapy had a slight edge over venlafaxine, it was so small that it’s considered of low clinical significance.

Treating menopause symptoms got complicated when the 2002 Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) study, a 15-year investigation into the factors that contribute to the health of postmenopausal women, was halted three years early when an early data review showed women taking the combination of estrogen and progestin had a higher rate of breast cancer, heart disease and stroke than women taking a placebo. In 2012, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force confirmed the WHI trial’s findings, concluding after a review of 51 studies published since 2002 that the risks of HRT outweighed the benefits. Given the potential risks, there’s a push to find other options.

The knowledge that treatments that don’t involve hormones are effective and available, is therefore extremely valuable for women seeking relief, the study concludes.

The study is published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.


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