08 December 2008

What causes hot flashes?

It's a common enough complaint - "Is it me, or is it hot in here?" Affecting about three quarters of all post-menopausal women, hot flashes are hardly rare. Yet the underlying mechanism is not understood as well as athlete's foot, or spider venom for that matter.

You might think that it is due to chronic lack of attention to issues of women's health, but this does not seem to be the case: using 'hot flash' as a search in PubMed brings up 1,937 studies, while only 1,466 studies have been published on athlete's foot and 1,402 on spider bite. Yet if you look at any recent review of the topic, you find only vague reference to a drop in estrogen levels, with little insight as to how this might affect dilation of blood vessels, alter thermoregulatory centres in the brain, or any of a dozen other underlying mechanistic questions.

So why is it that we don't know what causes hot flashes? The answer is at once surprising and obvious: we don't know everything about how the human body works. For all the advances that scientists have made, there are still enigmas in the world. [Actually, there are a raft of unresolved issues out there - Science recently put together a list of 125 issues that demand scientific inquiry over the next 25 years. Hot flashes were not on the list.]

Many people find it irritating when they have a malady that can't be treated. We somehow expect that in this day and age, if some part of our body itches, aches, oozes or is otherwise not working properly, medical science should have a solution. Unfortunately, reality tell us otherwise. 

Cross posted at Open Salon

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