By Nicole Ferring Holovach, MS, RD
We all learned about the “birds and the bees” growing up. Getting pregnant seemed so simple: one egg plus one sperm plus nine months equals baby. But as many women come to discover, sometimes it’s not so simple. According to the American Pregnancy Association, about 90 percent of women get pregnant within a year of trying. The other 10 percent are diagnosed with infertility and may need help to conceive. Conception is a complicated process that depends on a number of factors, including healthy testes and ovaries; healthy and abundant sperm and eggs; open fallopian tubes that allow the sperm to reach the egg; balanced hormones that allow ovulation to occur; and a healthy uterus that allows implantation to occur, among other factors. It’s like a symphony in its layered complexity; every part of the body must be ready to play right on cue. If any of those parts is “out of tune,” infertility may occur. Common medical interventions used to treat infertility include medications, surgery, and assisted reproductive technology like in-vitro fertilization (IVF). But increasingly, couples are turning to alternative therapies like acupuncture as part of their infertility treatment.
Acupuncture is an ancient healing practice originating in China. Some practitioners incorporate traditions from Japan, Korea, and other countries as well. The theory behind acupuncture is that all disease is caused by a disruption in the body’s energy system. Energy flows through the body along certain pathways, called meridians. By stimulating certain points along those meridians with small needles, and unblocking this flow of energy, a physiological change may occur and relieve the ailment. There can be various types and degrees of blockage in the flow of energy. Acupuncturists use a person’s tongue and pulse to diagnose and detect the degree of blockage. They also use the pulse to determine the quality of the different types of energy running through the body. Needle insertion points are determined based on the pulse and diagnosis. Acupuncturists may also use alternatives to needles, such as cupping and moxibustion. In cupping, a heated cup is applied to the skin to create a slight suction. Moxibustion involves burning dried herbs on or near the skin.
While it used to be considered a very alternative therapy, acupuncture is gaining acceptance and becoming more and more mainstream. In fact, in a 2005 poll of more than 700 physicians, more than half believed that acupuncture could be effective to some extent for a variety of health issues. Some health insurance plans even cover a part of the cost of acupuncture for certain conditions. However, scientific evidence of acupuncture’s effectiveness as a treatment for infertility is limited. Most of the quality evidence for acupuncture is regarding pain management. In terms of infertility, for a while it seemed the strongest research was in regards to in-vitro fertilization (IVF). A 2008 review study looked at thirteen randomized controlled trials, which are considered the gold standard study model in research. The review found evidence of benefit when acupuncture is performed on the day of embryo transfer during IVF. But another review study in 2010 found the opposite results. And the verdict is still out on whether acupuncture can improve fertility in general. Some studies have shown improved pregnancy rates for those who try acupuncture, while others have shown no benefit or non-statistically significant results.
While most experts say larger and better studies are needed in order to truly know whether acupuncture is effective for infertility, most acupuncturists would say it’s really difficult to study acupuncture! Especially when it comes to multifactoral conditions like infertility. Acupuncturists see infertility as a symptom, not a diagnosis. So they treat the underlying imbalance, which could be different in everyone. For example, an acupuncturist may treat you for decreased yin (a type of energy) that he/she believes is causing your thyroid imbalance, which can affect ovulation, which can affect fertility.
Acupuncture is relatively harmless. There aren’t many documented side effects and it is considered safe when performed by an experienced practitioner using sterile needles. Acupuncture is very relaxing for most people and can lower stress levels. While it’s unclear if stress significantly affects fertility, acupuncture can help cope with the stress of trying to conceive, which some have compared to the stress experienced by patients with cancer or heart disease. But while there might not be any physical cons per se, acupuncture can be very expensive. Some practitioners charge upwards of $100 per session, and many recommend weekly or twice-weekly treatments, at least to start. Some insurance plans cover part of the cost or offer alternative treatment perks, but it still adds up. If you’re thinking of pursuing acupuncture as a treatment for infertility, make sure you see a traditional fertility specialist first, so that you have a comprehensive understanding of what your fertility issues are. Ask your doctor to refer you to a trained and licensed acupuncturist for a consultation.
Published July 2, 2012.
Nicole is a Washington, DC-based nutrition communications professional, writer, and health and wellness educator. She blogs about holistic health at www.WholeHealthRD.com.