Like the annual Michael Bay flick, complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatments remain bafflingly popular among the greater populace — despite a chasm’s worth of solid evidence showing their efficacy in treating much of anything. And worryingly, it appears that the CAM trend has been only gathering stream with women about to enter or already experiencing menopause, according to a new study released online today in Menopause, the journal of the North American Menopause Society (NAMS). Worse still, this increased use often happens without any medical guidance or awareness by their primary health care providers.

Looking at data previously obtained from the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women's Health, the authors attempted to pinpoint whether women experiencing menopausal symptoms were more likely to seek out CAM practitioners like massage therapists and homeopaths or to self-prescribe themselves CAM treatments like herbal remedies. Exclusively peering at data from 2007 to 2010, they found that there was indeed a noticeable link. "Consultations with CAM practitioners and use of self-prescribed CAM among naturally or surgically postmenopausal women are associated with menopause-related symptoms," they concluded. Specifically, hot flashes made women more likely to visit a massage therapist or indulge in herbs, while women who had surgery to remove their uterus or ovaries were less likely to turn to CAM. Of the two, self-prescribed CAM was more likely among the menopausal crowd.

While some CAM treatments like massage or aromatherapy may have practical applications in relieving stress and anxiety, important components of pain management, the majority of herbal remedies have little-to-no support for their claimed benefits and can interact badly with other — effective — medications. The authors additionally found that in many cases women failed to inform their doctors that they were taking herbal remedies, perhaps under the misaligned assumption that they carried no possible danger. "There is still much to be learned in the CAM arena and women need to understand that just because something appears natural does not necessarily mean it is without risk, especially for certain populations," said NAMS Medical Director Dr. Wulf Utian, who was not involved in the study, in a press statement.

Though this current study found an increase in the percentage of menopausal women using CAM, it’s been difficult to measure just how many are actively using it. A 2014 review of previous survey research on CAM use in Maturitas found that the "majority of these surveys were of poor methodological quality." Still, the review concluded that when combined together, the literature shows that about 50 percent of women have used CAM for their menopausal symptoms and that half of these women did not discuss their choice with a health care professional, similar to what this latest study found.

Easy as it might be for some — like this writer — to rain down snark on CAM, the authors advocate that doctors should rather attempt to understand the concerns of their clients who decide to indulge in it. Many turn to these cost-effective remedies because they appear safer than scary-sounding treatments like hormone replacement, which, while no longer routinely recommended to alleviate menopause, is crucial in preventing bone density loss in women who experience premature menopause or primary ovarian insufficiency. Though they don’t necessarily need to endorse CAM therapies, the authors do recommend cooperation and education between the doctor and their client. "Our study findings should prompt healthcare providers, in particular family medicine practitioners, to be cognizant of clinical evidence for CAM typically used for the management of common menopause-related symptoms in their aim to provide safe, effective, and coordinated care for women," they wrote.

Source: Peng W, Adams J, Hickman L, et al. Longitudinal analysis of associations between women's consultations with complementary and alternative medicine practitioners/use of self-prescribed complementary and alternative medicine and menopause-related symptoms, 2007-2010. Menopause. 2015.