It’s hard to ignore the growing role acupuncture is playing these days with regard to fertility and pregnancy – there are celebrity testimonials (Celine Dion, Mariah Carey), popular health magazine articles, new data and research findings, online videos and explanations (see link here for WebMD video), and even just conversation with friends or colleagues about their stories or stories from someone they know who used acupuncture for this reason. At Stepping Stone Acupuncture, we can surely say that a significant percentage of the patients we see are trying to improve their chance of conceiving – and we appreciate the opportunity to become partners with our patients to help them along this journey.
With regard to fertility issues, acupuncture can be seen as both an alternative treatment (for example, an option to try instead of Western infertility protocols) and a complementary therapy to use in conjunction with modern Western fertility treatments. When used alone, acupuncture is probably most effective for couples experiencing a functional problem, like irregular ovulation or hormonal insufficiencies, rather than a structural problem, like blocked oviducts or sperm ducts (these structural problems are best handled with Western medical techniques).
Although there is growing evidence and support that acupuncture effectively treats fertility issues, how acupuncture works is still debatable (see our recent blog entry for more information about the difficulty in designing acupuncture studies). If you ask most licensed acupuncturists, they will say that acupuncture helps by regulating the body’s energetic system, promoting blood flow to the reproductive organs, and stabilizing hormone levels. These outcomes, in turn, help increase ovarian function in women, as well as sperm production in men.
According to existing and ongoing research, possible benefits of acupuncture for fertility include:
Women’s fertility issues related to hormonal imbalances are particularly treatable with acupuncture (or acupuncture applied in conjunction with traditional Chinese herbal medicines or Western medications). Acupuncture can be used to help stimulate egg production and regular ovulation during the first half (ovulatory phase) of the menstrual cycle, as well as provide hormonal balance during the second half (luteal phase). Acupuncture can also decrease PMS symptoms, regulate irregular cycles and periods, and decrease anxiety, stress, and TTC (trying-to-conceive) frustrations.
In mild to moderate cases of irregular menstrual cycles, acupuncture helps regulate the monthly cycle so that ovulation occurs at a more predictable time. In more serious cases when there is a failure to ovulate (anovulation) or polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), acupuncture has also proven effective. For example, problems with ovulation (late, early, irregular, or no ovulation) that are connected with follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) imbalances may be treatable, as well as symptoms related to imbalances in progesterone (luteal phase defect) and early-term miscarriage.
It has also been shown that acupuncture can provide additional benefits by increasing blood flow to the uterus, helping to build the uterine lining for implantation. Additionally, if progesterone levels are not sufficient to help maintain the endometrium during the luteal phase, acupuncture can decrease the odds of miscarriage by helping sustain the integrity of the uterine lining that supports a pregnancy.
Finally, it is generally accepted that acupuncture effectively reduces stress. Since stress has been shown to interfere with getting pregnant, it makes sense that reducing stress levels by with acupuncture could theoretically improve the chances of conceiving. In our practice, our clients (women and men alike) agree that acupuncture helps them to cope with the stress they feel about trying to conceive.
In addition to the general effects acupuncture has on fertility, it has been shown to be effective in supporting various assisted reproductive technology (ART) procedures. In such cases, acupuncture may be used directly to help facilitate hormonal balance, ovulation, egg maturation, etc, or indirectly to reduce anxiety and stress, restore the body's natural balance, and to help support overall wellness and emotional equilibrium. For women using fertility medications, acupuncture may reduce side effects of these agents, thus making ART procedures more tolerable.
In regard to the specific use of acupuncture during the in vitro fertilization (IVF) process, studies indicate having acupuncture both before and after embryo transfer can increase the chance that the embryo will be implanted successfully and reduce the chance of miscarriage. Additionally, there are also indications that IVF efficacy may improve if acupuncture is done about once a week in the month or two leading up to the start of IVF and then continued regularly — once or twice a week — during the whole cycle.
One of the most popular acupuncture and IVF studies was performed by Dr. Paulus, et al, in 2002. The results of this study, published in the journal Fertility and Sterility, showed that of the 80 women who underwent IVF and received acupuncture, 34 women got pregnant (42.5% success rate). Of the 80 women in the study who received IVF without any acupuncture treatments, only 21 women became pregnant (26.3% success rate). More recently, another study involving 114 women showed that 51% of the women who had acupuncture and IVF treatments became pregnant, versus only 36% of the women who had IVF alone. Deeper analysis of this study revealed that, while 8% of the women in the acupuncture group miscarried, the rate of miscarriage in the IVF-only group was 20%.
Acupuncture can also help male infertility. A few studies have shown that regular acupuncture treatments significantly improve sperm counts and motility (strength with which the sperm swim), as well as the quality and health of sperm. In a study published in Fertility and Sterility in 2005, researchers analyzed sperm samples from men with infertility of unknown cause before and after acupuncture treatments. They found that acupuncture was associated with fewer structural defects in sperm and an increase in the number of normal sperm.
At Stepping Stone Acupuncture, we understand that any and all fertility issues can be difficult and, at times, exhausting. We want our patients to feel comfortable talking to us about these struggles so that we can do everything we can to help the situation using acupuncture, herbs, dietary and lifestyle suggestions, and just plain old listening. We are dedicated to helping each and every patient achieve their maximum fertility.