I Tried It: Acupuncture for Hot Flashes

Human pincushion? Sure! Sweaty times call for desperate measures; this tester was willing to do almost anything to cool down.

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A Hot Mess

The first one felt like being encased in wet, boiling steam — it lasted about two minutes and left me chilled and damp, from my hair to my toes. I was 47, and my periods hadn't stopped yet. Yes, a cramps-and-hot-flashes combo. Delightful. And once the sweaty spells started, they didn't quit, at times hitting every five minutes. I quickly learned to dress in layers, brought a fan to the office, and kept extra nightshirts next to the bed. It wasn't just that I was supremely uncomfortable; I was also embarrassed. I dreaded the sudden flushing and the constant jacket dance: on, off, on, off.

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I tried supplements that claimed to aid menopause symptoms — no change. Then one day at lunch while I was shedding another layer, an acquaintance told me she'd gone to an acupuncturist for her hot flashes, and it had worked. I'd never considered the treatment. I'm not a needle-phobe, but didn't it hurt? How could it not hurt? And wasn't it kind of woo-woo? Intrigued and unstrung, I took down her practitioner's number anyway, and made an appointment.

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The Yin and Yang of It

For the first hour of my session, Phyllis went through my medical history and explained that she wouldn't be treating me specifically for hot flashes. Western medicine, she said, tends to address symptoms; the Eastern approach tries to fix the problem at its roots. The theory: Acupuncture balances energy flows throughout the body that are affected by menopause, including the ones that can contribute to hot flashes.

Then it was time for the therapy. I lay down on the table, and Phyllis showed me the needles. They were as tiny and fine as strands of hair. The first was inserted just below my collarbone, and I felt the slightest sensation — only a faint prick. She moved on to my arms, stomach, hands, legs, feet, and face. (OK, the ones there made me flinch. Needles. Near my eyes. Ack.)

Chilled Out

A few minutes and 18 needles later, Phyllis was done. She told me to breathe steadily and that she'd be back soon to check on me. At first I lay there stiff and unmoving, despite the dim lighting and spa music. Then my body started to release and my mind calmed; I was no longer on a treatment table but instead drifting on a quiet sea. About 20 minutes passed, then Phyllis removed the needles. I left feeling peaceful — like a partially filled helium balloon. And here's the thing: The hot flashes stopped that day. That day. I didn't understand how it worked, but my around-the-clock heat waves were gone.

I saw Phyllis every other week or so. About six months into the sessions, the hot flashes returned, but now they were mild and happened just a couple of times a day. After a few more months, I decided to stop treatment — that's how manageable the symptoms had become. It's a mystery to me why the sessions fixed my out-of-whack thermostat, but I'm still grateful to Phyllis, and her needles.

Is Acupuncture a Solution?

It's too soon to know. Research has found that women who try acupuncture may have less frequent and severe hot flashes, but some experts think this could be due to a placebo effect. If you decide to go the needle route, be sure to book your sessions with an experienced, well-trained acupuncturist. Go to nccaom.org to find a certified practitioner near you.

This story originally appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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