If headlines are any indication of what’s hot and what’s not, it’s easy to believe that infertility treatment is strictly a modern day science, made possible solely through the courtesy of high-tech medicine.
But as good as modern science is, many couples trying to get pregnant find themselves turning to an age-old treatment for help — one so steeped in tradition it’s about as far from life in the 21st century as one can get.
That treatment is acupuncture, and today, even high-tech reproductive specialists are looking to the somewhat mysterious world of Chinese medicine to help those fertility patients for whom western science alone is not quite enough.
Acupuncture is the insertion of ultra-thin, sterile needles into specific acupuncture points on the body which reside on channels or meridians; these are pathways in both the exterior and interior of the body. These points, when needled, can regulate the way in which the body functions.
Acupuncture helps by addressing problems that affect fertility such as an under-functioning thyroid (hypothyroidism) or over-functioning thyroid (hyperthyroidism). It can allow you to cross the line from infertile to fertile by helping your body function more efficiently, which in turn allows other, more modern reproductive treatments, like IVF, to also work more efficiently,” says James Dillard, MD, assistant clinical professor, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and clinical adviser to Columbia’s Rosenthal Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
Acupuncture, frequently combined with herbal medicine, has been used for centuries to treat some but not all causes of infertility. For example, acupuncture and herbs will not work to address tubal adhesions which can occur as a result of pelvic inflammatory disease or endometriosis. However, in this situation, an individual could still benefit from acupuncture and herbs because of the potential effect of improved ovarian and follicular function. Additionally, acupuncture can increase blood flow to the endometrium, helping to facilitate a thick, rich lining.
Acupuncture is similar to physical therapy in that it is a process-oriented method of medical intervention. It is better to do more than less. Patients are commonly treated for three to four months before progressing to insemination, in vitro fertilization (IVF), or donor-egg transfer. This pacing of treatment seems to have a therapeutic effect.
In a study by Stener-Victorin et al from the Departments of Obstetrics and Gynecology Fertility Centre, Scandinavia and University of Gothenburg, women are encouraged to receive acupuncture treatments pre and post embryo transfer. Indeed, in a study of 160 women, published April 2002 in the reproductive journal Fertility and Sterility, a group of German researchers found that adding acupuncture to the traditional IVF treatment protocols substantially increased pregnancy success.
Clinical observations from the Berkley Center for Reproductive Wellness suggest that the most effective fertility treatments involve a combination of acupuncture, herbal medicine, and traditional medicine. In this study one group of 80 patients received two, 25-minute acupuncture treatments — one prior to having fertilized embryos transferred into their uterus, and one directly afterwards. The second group of 80, who also underwent embryo transfer, received no acupuncture treatments. The result: While women in both groups got pregnant, the rate was significantly higher in the acupuncture group — 34 pregnancies, compared with 21 in the women who received IVF alone. But increasing the odds of IVF is not the only way acupuncture can help. Chang says it can also work to stimulate egg production in women who can’t — or don’t want to — use fertility medications to help them get pregnant. Conception can occur when acupuncture and herbal medicines are used without traditional medical interventions.
“When you compare the pregnancy rates for an egg producing drug such as Clomid to acupuncture alone, the rates are equal — a 50% chance of pregnancy in three months for general patients — to those not undergoing IVF,” says Chang. Unfortunately, however, Chang says that because acupuncture generally stimulates the growth and release of just one egg, it can’t be substituted for fertility drugs used in IVF, since they work to produce the multiple eggs necessary to achieve success with this treatment.
Acupuncture can be used to treat any type of fertility disorder including spasmed tubes. Spasmed tubes are often de-spasmed with acupuncture, though blocked tubes will not respond to acupuncture. Acupuncture is often combined with herbal remedies to treat elevated follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), repeated pregnancy loss, unexplained (idiopathic) infertility, luteal phase defect, hyperprolactinemia (when not caused by a prolactinoma), polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) with annovulatory cycles and male factor including men affected with sperm-DNA-fragmentation.
If you are experiencing infertility and considering acupuncture treatment, the following is imperative:
- Look for a doctor that is adequately trained and licensed in acupuncture, as well as has a background in treating infertility. An MD who simply practices acupuncture once in a while often has just several hundred hours experience, compared to several thousand hours of training and practice required for a traditional Chinese doctor.
- Look for an acupuncturist associated with a major academic medical center.
- If you are undergoing fertility treatments with a reproductive endocrinologist, make certain that your doctor has a working relationship with your acupuncturist, and that they work in harmony to establish a treatment regimen.
- If you are not seeing a fertility specialist, do pay at least one visit to an obstetrician before seeking the help of an acupuncturist — and make sure your obstetrician is aware of your acupuncture treatment plan.
- Although acupuncture often works in harmony with Chinese herbal medicine, if you are undergoing IVF or any traditional fertility treatment, don’t take any herbs without the OK of your reproductive medicine specialist.
- If you are undergoing an IVF protocol and acupuncture simultaneously, once you reach the implantation stage it’s imperative to get a pregnancy test before proceeding with more acupuncture treatments. If you are trying to get pregnant on your own it is equally important to have your pregnancy verified by an obstetrician as soon as possible. Some of the same points used to stimulate the uterus and increase fertility may also cause a miscarriage — so your acupuncturist needs to know if you are, or could be pregnant.
Here at our office, Dr Chambers offers traditional acupuncture and auriculotherapy ( electrical ear acupuncture) treatment protocols for infertility. For more information or to schedule an appointment, please contact our office at (304) 263-4927.