If you’re a couple having a difficult time conceiving a baby, acupuncture for fertility may be helpful whether you are trying on your own, or with the help of assisted reproductive technologies like Intra Uterine Insemination (IUI) and In Vitro Fertilization (IVF).
Fertility problems have become a major concern in gynecological clinics. It’s estimated that infertility affects more than 1.2 million women of reproductive age in the United States. This common and frustrating medical condition can take a significant emotional and physical toll on women and their partners. The burden of infertility includes the frequent psychopathologic consequences of anxiety, depression, crisis within the relationship, divorce, and lack of self-reliance.
The science behind acupuncture for fertility
The use of acupuncture for treating various gynecologic conditions and infertility is said to have been practiced in Asia more than 2,000 years ago. Today, it is becoming widely used in Western medicine, and accessible onsite in fertility clinics across the country.
“Acupuncture for infertility can work because it increases blood flow to the uterus and ovaries. It may thicken the endometrial lining of the uterus, which aids in the implantation of an egg, as well as also help with poor ovarian response to fertility medications that promote ovulation and hyperovulation,” said Steven Mavros, L.OM., co-founder of Healing Arts Center of Philadelphia.
Treating a patient for infertility first requires an overall assessment of a woman’s menstrual cycle. Are there any glaring issues that might be preventing a woman from having a regular monthly cycle?
There are a variety of reasons that cause infertility, such as anovulatory disorders, which is diagnosed with menstrual irregularity. Ovulation delay is also a common occurrence in women with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS).
If an underlying reason is identified, acupuncturists can then manipulate the body so that ovulation can occur, which then reestablishes a regular cycle (ideally, a cycle would be once every month).
A study in the International Journal of Women’s Health has shown that acupuncture can increase fertility in three ways: Firstly, acupuncture may mediate the release of neurotransmitters, which may, in turn, stimulate secretion of gonadotropin releasing hormone, thereby influencing the menstrual cycle, ovulation and fertility. Secondly, acupuncture may stimulate blood flow to the uterus by inhibiting uterine central sympathetic nerve activity. Thirdly, acupuncture may stimulate the production of endogenous opioids, which may inhibit the central nervous system’s outflow and the biological stress response.
According to the study, stress is known to have a negative effect on reproduction and perhaps the menstrual cycle. As acupuncture, for example, aids in lowering stress hormones, which undermine fertility, it is thought that this may be a major mechanism for acupuncture to influence reproductive function and account for fertility-boosting effects.
In the Handbook of Obstetrics and Gynecology in Chinese Medicine: An Integrated Approach, acupuncture is especially effective when infertility is caused by a hypothalamic disorder. If patients are screened to include those most likely to respond (for example, those with adequate estrogen levels), the success rate can be as high as 80% in achieving ovulation.
Males also account for infertility problems. For men, there is evidence showing that acupuncture can increase sperm count, as well as improve motility percentages.
Stimulating the right acupuncture points
The actual treatment for women who have fertility problems is not very different than receiving traditional acupuncture. Thin, tiny needles are inserted in specific points in the hands, feet, head, ears and the fertility spots, which are located in the abdomen and the lower back, according to Mavros. Men who have fertility issues will also receive the same treatment in similar points. Mavros will also insert a tiny needle in the lower sacrum, which can be helpful in increasing sperm concentration.
IVF and acupuncture
IVF may be the last possibility for many couples to get pregnant. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2016 Fertility Clinic Success Rates Report shows that approximately 1.7% of all infants born in the U.S. every year are conceived using assisted reproductive technologies.
Many IVF cycles do not lead to pregnancy, and repeated treatment cycles are required to be successful. The national averages for IVF success hover around 45% depending on the age of the woman, according to Mavros.
With the economic burden related to the cost of IVF treatments, many are seeking alternative therapies to improve outcomes like acupuncture.
“Couples are turning to acupuncture for infertility because success rates for conceiving can be low even if they’re doing very expensive fertility treatments. If you can make a $25,000 fertility treatment 60% effective with acupuncture instead of 50% alone, then it’s worth it,” said Mavros.
Research has shown that acupuncture combined with IVF may lead to a successful pregnancy. In fact, a study in the Journal of Endocrinological Investigation revealed that acupuncture on the day of embryo transfer had some positive effects on live birth rates. The study also showed that women with PCOS, and men with unexplained fertility also benefitted from acupuncture.
Mavros has also seen success rates in his own patients. Based on statistics from Mavros’ practice, acupuncture with IVF treatment shows a net positive 8%-12% higher live birth rates than IVF alone. This includes cycles that are Fresh or Frozen Embryo Transfer (FET), and when combined with Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ICSI), Pre-Genetic Screening or Determination (PGS or PGD) or with donor egg or embryo.
“You can’t do just two to three treatments, you need a dosage requirement with acupuncture for someone undergoing IVF. Studies show that you need at least six to eight treatments to show benefits,” said Mavros.
Treating infertility with whole system Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for greater live birth rates
Studies have shown that patients who are undergoing IVF treatments and combine it with whole system TCM, which includes acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, dietary and lifestyle recommendations, was associated with greater odds of live birth in donor and non-donor cycles. A study published in Reproductive Biomedicine Online identified 1,231 IVF patient records to assess the effect of adjuvant whole system TCM on IVF outcomes compared among three groups: IVF with no additional treatment; IVF and elective acupuncture on day of embryo transfer; or IVF and elective whole system TCM. The primary outcome was live birth. Of 1,069 non-donor cycles, whole system TCM was associated with greater odds of live birth compared with IVF alone, or embryo transfer with acupuncture only. Of 162 donor cycles, whole system TCM was associated with increased live births compared with all groups or embryo transfer with acupuncture only.
In treating patients with both Chinese herbs, Mavros will typically cut it out if someone is receiving hormonal therapy as the medication can interact and cause adverse reactions.
Acupuncture is also a great help for those who are undergoing IUI treatments. The medication (hormonal ovulation inducers) often have unpleasant side effects, and the success rate for this therapy on its own works about 20% of the time, according to Mavros. Acupuncture combined with this treatment increases the success rate of conceiving, and limits the side effects of medications.
Acupuncture alone, or combined with IVF and other assisted reproductive technologies may be helpful in increasing fertility with no side effects. Acupuncture is a safe alternative for treating infertility and can stimulate the body to balance, destress and regulate itself, thus creating a healthy environment for a successful pregnancy. This holistic, natural approach to fertility has been practiced for thousands of years in the Far East and could be something worth exploring if you’re trying to start a family.