The stress of not being able to get pregnant month after month can become all consuming. After several months of trying without a positive pregnancy test, or experiencing a miscarriage or two, many women look to see what their options are to improve their fertility. One of the options often listed to try is acupuncture, a 3,000 year old Chinese healing technique. Historically, the research on acupuncture has shown evidence in either direction: some in support of improving fertility and the others showing no significance.
The majority of the studies looking at the significance of acupuncture, however, were case studies and did not utilize the gold standard of research involving a randomized controlled trial. Dr. Suzanne Cochrane and team decided to test acupuncture in sub/infertile women who have been trying to conceive for at least 12 months in a controlled randomized study. Participants were randomized in either an acupuncture intervention or lifestyle modification intervention. The acupuncture group received 7-9 treatments over 3 months. The results showed that women receiving acupuncture conceived with an average of 5.5 weeks compared to 10.67 weeks for the lifestyle group. The research concluded that the acupuncture group, over the lifestyle modification group, increased their wellbeing in addition to significantly improving conception rates (see study here). Can we conclude with 100% certainty that acupuncture works to improve fertility from the study? Not yet. We still need more randomized trials with large populations to be certain, but the evidence does seem to be pointing in that direction.
How Can Acupuncture Help?
Acupuncture is commonly used to help alleviate pain and also to help with insomnia, stress and energy levels. In regards to fertility, acupuncture shows promise to improve an under-active thyroid, improve the lining of the endometrium to ensure the egg(s) will be held to term, increase blood flow to the uterus, as well as to help regulate hormonal levels which may improve ovarian and follicular function.
Even if acupuncture is unable to, for example, regulate your period, it is well documented that acupuncture works to decrease stress. Stress is a controversial topic in the world of infertility. While it does not help, and is certaintly frustrating, to be told to 'just reduce your stress' to get pregnant, there is evidence that high stress has an negative impact on fertility. We all know stress at any level certainly has a negative impact on wellbeing in general. Acupuncture releases endorphins that promote relaxation that you may feel for up to a week after your appointment.
Acupuncture and IVF
In 2008, a review of 13 of the best studies on acupuncture and IVF was published showing improved success rates when used together. After the review, many clinics started to use acupuncture in conjunction with their treatment recommendation. The 2010 review of three newer studies, however, did not show increase in pregnancy rates, so it’s not clear yet how much exactly acupuncture helps when used in combination with infertility treatments (source). More studies are needed to compare the difference on the number of treatments and timing of the treatments in a large study population in a randomized trial.
Click below to read passionate primary and secondary infertility advocate, Jen Noonan, on her personal experience with 5 alternative conception enhancers, including acupuncture, during her trying to conceive journey.
How Does Acupuncture Work to Heal the Body?
The purpose of the treatment is to keep your body in balance. The philosophy is based on your energy, called “qi”, flowing along specific pathways, called meridian pathways, throughout the body. This energy, however, can get blocked leading to pain or illness. When the ultra-thin needles are inserted, it sends a message from the acupuncture point to the brain through the meridian pathway. The brain releases chemicals such as calming neurotransmitters and helps to release the blocked qi and evoke the body's natural healing response.
This may sound strange to people used to Western medicine, but modern research shows that acupuncture has a positive impact on the nervous system, endocrine and immune systems, cardiovascular system and digestive system (source).
What Happens at the Practitioner’s Office?
In the majority of acupuncture clinics you will fill out a medical history form and answer questions in regards to your menstrual cycles, diet and emotional state. Be prepared for your practitioner to examine your tongue. If you don’t know already, your tongue can reveal certain aspects of your health and changes with many physical changes in the body (source).
How to Pick an Acupuncturist:
Should you decide to try acupuncture, make sure you select an experienced licensed practitioner. It’s also best to select an acupuncturist who specializes in fertility and women’s health.