Does acupuncture improve chances of conception?
Any couple struggling to conceive knows the heartache of infertility, and many people are open to trying anything that could increase their chances of having a baby. The good news is many different types of fertility treatments can help, including alternative methods such as acupuncture.
Acupuncture has been practiced for thousands of years, and it involves placing ultra-thin needles into specific points in the body. The theory of acupuncture is that these spots, or acupuncture points, reside on channels called meridians. When these pathways are needled during acupuncture, they help control the way the body works.
"Most experts think acupuncture improves fertility by helping blood flow to the uterus and ovaries," says John Norian, MD, a reproductive endocrinologist at HRC Fertility in Southern California. And the better the blood flow to these areas, the more likely an embryo is to implant.
Fertility Conditions Acupuncture Can Help
Proponents of the technique use acupuncture to treat many different causes of infertility, including spasmed tubes and repeated pregnancy losses. Acupuncture also is believed by some experts to treat the thyroid problems that can cause infertility. (Both an overactive and underactive thyroid can make it difficult to conceive.) It can also treat some cases of infertility without a known cause. Some doctors use only acupuncture, and others use it along with mainstream fertility treatments.
In addition, acupuncture boosts feel-good hormones called beta endorphins, says Dr. Norian. This improves levels of follicle-stimulating hormone and luteinizing hormone, which are both important to fertility. "It also helps decrease the stress response," he says.
Studies back up these claims. In 2002, researchers studied the effects of acupuncture on pregnancy rates. Women having fertility treatments were assigned to either a control group or an acupuncture group. Scientists transferred embryos into each woman. Half of the women received acupuncture treatment, while the other half (control group) did not. Six weeks later, 26 percent of the women in the control group were pregnant. In the acupuncture group, 42 percent were pregnant.
Norian says this study, in addition to other research, shows acupuncture may improve fertility. "The 2002 study showed benefit, which was really exciting," he says, though he adds that more studies are needed. Large scale, prospective randomized controlled trials that show a positive effect of acupuncture in infertility are lacking, although most of the existing, smaller studies have shown a positive effect.
Acupuncture for Male Infertility
Research has also shown acupuncture can boost fertility in men. Male infertility is the cause about 30 percent of the time in couples who cannot conceive. A 2005 study published in Fertility and Sterility showed acupuncture can help treat male infertility by increasing the number of normal sperm and decreasing the number of defective sperm.
Tips for Having Acupuncture
But acupuncture isn't for everyone. For example, Norian says it's less likely to work in people who don't believe in alternative treatments.
If you're thinking about acupuncture for infertility, Norian gives the following tips:
- Go to an experienced practitioner. "See an acupuncturist who is trained in treating infertility," he says. Ask your doctor for a referral or go to www.nccaom.org to find a licensed and board certified acupuncturist.
Have acupuncture a few times to get used to it. "You want to develop a rapport with the acupuncturist and make sure you're comfortable," Norian says. According to the American Pregnancy Association, patients often get acupuncture for three to four months before undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF) or other fertility treatments.
- Get acupuncture on the day of your embryo transfer if you're having IVF. "And if you can, have acupuncture done close to the office where your IVF will take place. You don't want to have to drive a long distance in between," Norian says. The less stress that surrounds acupuncture and fertility treatments, the better. And in a Scandinavian study, women were encouraged to get acupuncture after embryo transfer as well.
Norian believes in the power of acupuncture, and he recommends it to some of his infertility patients. "If we can offer complementary techniques like acupuncture that have known benefits, I think that is reasonable," he says. It's thought that the best results come from a combination of fertility treatments, including traditional medicine, acupuncture, and herbal medicine.
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The American Pregnancy Association: "Infertility and Acupuncture."
John Norian, MD, HRC Fertility.
Paulus, WE. Fertility and Sterility, April 2002.
Pei, J. Fertility and Sterility, July 2005.
Resolve.org: "Frequently Asked Questions about Infertility."