Menopausal symptoms are a domaine of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), not least because many women are worried about hormone treatments and therefore want ‘something natural’. TCM practitioners are only too keen to offer their services. But do their treatments really work?
This study aimed to analyze the effectiveness of acupuncture combined with Chinese herbal medicine (CHM) on mood disorder symptoms for menopausal women.
A total of 95 qualified Chinese participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups:
- 31 in the acupuncture combined with CHM group (combined group),
- 32 in the acupuncture combined with CHM placebo group (acupuncture group),
- 32 in the CHM combined with sham acupuncture group (CHM group).
The patients were treated for 8 weeks and followed up for 4 weeks. The data were collected using the Greene Climacteric Scale (GCS), self-rating depression scale (SDS), self-rating anxiety scale (SAS), and safety index.
The three groups each showed significant decreases in the GCS, SDS, and SAS after treatment (p < 0.05). Furthermore, the effect on the GCS total score and the anxiety domain lasted until the follow-up period in the combined group (p < 0.05). Within the three groups, there was no difference in GCS and SAS between the three groups after treatment (p > 0.05). However, the combined group showed significant improvement in the SDS, compared with both the acupuncture group and the CHM group at 8 weeks and 12 weeks (p < 0.05). No obvious abnormal cases were found in any of the safety indexes.
The authors concluded that the results suggest that either acupuncture, or CHM or combined therapy offer safe improvement of mood disorder symptoms for menopausal women. However, the combination therapy was associated with more stable effects in the follow-up period and a superior effect on improving depression symptoms.
Previous reviews have drawn conclusions that are far less positive, e.g.:
- the observed clinical benefit associated with acupuncture may be due, in part, or in whole to nonspecific effects.
- the evidence gathered was not sufficient to affirm the effectiveness of traditional acupuncture compared with sham acupuncture.
- For natural menopause, one large study has shown acupuncture to be superior to self-care alone in reducing the number of hot flushes and improving the quality of life; five small studies have been unable to demonstrate that the effect of acupuncture is limited to any particular points, as traditional theory would suggest; and one study showed acupuncture was superior to blunt needle for flash frequency but not intensity.
- Sham-controlled RCTs fail to show specific effects of acupuncture for control of menopausal hot flushes.
It seems therefore wise to take the conclusions of the new study with a pinch of salt. The intergroup difference observed in this trial may well be due to residual biases, multiple testing, or coincidence. And the reported intragroup differences are in complete accord with the fact that the employed therapies are mere placebos.
This, of course, begs the question of whether SCAM has anything else to offer for women suffering from menopausal symptoms. To answer it, I can refer you to one of our systematic reviews:
Some evidence exists in favour of phytosterols and phytostanols for diminishing LDL and total cholesterol in postmenopausal women. Similarly, regular fiber intake is effective in reducing serum total cholesterol in hypercholesterolemic postmenopausal women. Clinical evidence also exists on the effectiveness of vitamin K, a combination of calcium and vitamin D or a combination of walking with other weight-bearing exercise in reducing bone mineral density loss and the incidence of fractures in postmenopausal women. Black cohosh appears to be effective therapy for relieving menopausal symptoms, primarily hot flashes, in early menopause. Phytoestrogen extracts, including isoflavones and lignans, appear to have only minimal effect on hot flashes but have other positive health effects, e.g. on plasma lipid levels and bone loss. For other commonly used CAMs, e.g. probiotics, prebiotics, acupuncture, homeopathy and DHEA-S, randomized, placebo-controlled trials are scarce and the evidence is unconvincing. More and better RCTs testing the effectiveness of these treatments are needed.