December 8, 2013

Can Acupuncture help fix infertility and improve pregnancy success rates

There are wide ranging factors that can make conception difficult to achieve and as a result, more and more couples are undergoing  in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Despite the many advances in IVF techniques over recent years, each IVF treatment cycle is expensive, lengthy and stressful and successful conception often remains difficult to achieve. However, a number of research studies conducted over recent years have shown a correlation between the use of acupuncture treatments and improvements in rates of conception. In this post, I’ll give you an overview of the results of a number of these studies and discuss acupuncture and fertility in a bit more detail.

Acupuncture and Fertility Research Studies

In 2006, the University of Maryland conducted 7 research trials involving 1,366 women undergoing in-vitro fertilization. Subjects of the trials received needle acupuncture within one day of embryo transfer. Control groups received either “placebo” acupuncture or no treatment. The researchers found that when acupuncture took place on the day of embryo transfer, statistically significant improvements were found in the rates of clinical pregnancy (165%), ongoing pregnancies (127%) and live births (187%). The studies implied that acupuncture increased the probability of clinical pregnancy by 65% when compared to the control groups.

In another study in 2002, 160 IVF patients who had good-quality embryos were divided into 2 groups thru random selection: embryo transfer with Acupuncture (n=80) and embryo transfer without acupuncture (n=80). Acupuncture was performed on 80 patients 25 minutes after embryo transfer. In the control group, embryos were transferred without any supportive therapy. In the acupuncture group, 34 of the 80 patients got pregnant (success rate: 42.5%). In the control group, 21 out of 80 got pregnant (success rate: 26.3%).

In a 2005 study, 40 men with idiopathic oligospermia, asthenospermia, or teratozoospermia were tracked in an Acupuncture study. Of the 40 patients, 28 received acupuncture twice a week over a period of 5 weeks. The samples from the treatment group were randomized with semen samples from the 12 men in the untreated control group. Quantitative analysis by transmission electron microscopy (TEM) was used to evaluate the samples. Statistical evaluation of the TEM data showed a significant increase after acupuncture in the percentage and number of sperm without ultrastructural defects in the total ejaculates. The conclusion is that: the treatment of idiopathic male infertility could benefit from employing acupuncture.

How does Acupuncture increase successful pregnancy rates?

Further studies from various research groups concluded that Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal medicine may:

  • Assist in production of good quality follicle and eggs which are essential for conception to occur.
  • Increase blood flow to the uterus, leading to an improved endometrium lining which increase the chance of successful embryo implantation.
  • Normalize endocrine function therefore; normalize secretion of reproductive hormones to mature, release follicles and eggs. This is important as women with PCOS have abnormal reproductive hormone levels and anovoulatory cycles.
  • Normalize thyroid function which may enhance fertility.
  • Increase the number of follicles produced during an IVF treatment.
  • Improve blood flow in the testes to improve sperm quality, sperm mobility and counts in infertile men.

Acupuncture and Fertility in Traditional Chinese Medical Terms

Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on channels called meridians that move “Qi” (vital energy) through our bodies. These are often compared to rivers flowing through the body and nourishing the tissues. Stagnation in the flow of these energy rivers is like a dam that is backed up. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, disruption of these energy flows can lead to physical and emotional illnesses, including infertility. The flow of energy through these meridians can be affected by inserting very fine needles at specific points, known as acupuncture points. By needling the acupuncture points, the flow of the energy is released and is allowed to flow through the meridians, over time this restores the body to balance.

This is more than just theory – in a research study at UC Irvine, researchers used MRIs to look at the brain while patients received acupuncture treatment. Traditionally, acupuncturists have used a point on the little toe to address eye pain. The point is chosen because it is on the same meridian as the eye. What is interesting in this particular study is that when the point on the foot for eye pain was stimulated, the part of the brain that regulates vision lit up. A number of other studies have used MRI to discover that the brains of patients treated by acupuncture light up in zones that relate to the part of the body being treated, rather than the location of the needle, suggesting that there is some supporting evidence to indicate that acupuncture does have some effect, even if Western medicine can’t come up with a convincing explanation for why it works

Traditional Chinese medicine is based on health problems – including infertility – being the result of blockages in these meridians that disrupt the flow of energy (Qi) through the body. A trained Acupuncturist & TCM Practitioner spends a number of years learning to analyse a patient’s Qi, diagnose health issues and identify the right way to enhance their energy flow and undo blockages. Traditional Chinese Medicine believes in treating patients holistically, with treatment being specific to each patients unique health issues and needs – treatment suitable for one patient may well not be suitable for another. 

In determining which combinations of Acupuncture points to use and what herbal medicines to use in conjunction with these, a thorough knowledge of the underlying theories and practice of Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine is needed. Recommended treatments may also include changes in diet, Chinese herbal medicines and recommendations for changes in general lifestyle. 

Benefits of Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine for patients undergoing IVF or IUI procedures

Although some patients start acupuncture treatments just prior to IUI or IVF procedures, I generally recommend commencing acupuncture and TCM treatment at least three months in advance of beginning IUI or IVF procedures. Infertility generally has underlying causes, and the more time available to treat these prior to beginning IUI or IVF, the more prepared you will be to deal with IUI or IVF procedures physically, mentally and emotionally. I also recommend continued acupuncture and TCM treatment through the full IUI / IVF treatment cycle as a means of increasing the probability of successful conception.

Acupuncture has been shown to increase the success rate of IVF and also reduces the pain associated with IVF. Recent studies have also clearly shown that most patients will benefit from acupuncture treatments around the period of time of their IVF treatment. Benefits of acupuncture at this point in the IVF cycle include:

  • Relaxing the patient and reducing stress levels
  • Regulating hormonal imbalances resulting in a larger number of follicles
  • Strengthening the immune system
  • Lessening the side effects of drugs used in IVF or other western medical reproductive procedures
  • Improving the function of the ovaries to help produce better quality eggs
  • Increasing blood flow to the uterus and increasing the thickness of the uterine lining
  • Preventing the uterus from contracting
  • Improving semen and sperm quality and quantity to create better embryos
  • Decreasing the chances of miscarriage

Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medical treatments address support needs for patients undergoing IVF / IUI procedures that are not routinely available in the western model of care. In pure statistical terms, patients who use acupuncture and TCM treatments in preparation for, and in conjunction with, IVF and IUI procedures, significantly improve their probability of successfully conceiving. Acupuncture is similar to physical therapy in that it is a process-oriented method of medical intervention where it is better to do more than less. 

Acupuncture and Fertility – Sperm Production

There have been a number of studies which suggest that acupuncture can have a positive effect on both the quantity and the quality of male sperm. Around 30 to 40 percent of infertility is due to problems with male sperm. Studies suggest that after around five weeks of twice-weekly fertility acupuncture treatment, the total number of normal sperm can be significantly increased and the structural abnormalities in sperm reduced.

One study showed that even men who had very low sperm counts could benefit from acupuncture, with an Israeli study in 2000 detecting a definite increase in sperm count in ten out of fifteen men who had no sperm count at all before treatment. Fertility acupuncture for males has also been shown to improve sperm production and motility, however it does not treat all sperm abnormalities, with one study showing that immature sperm or sperm death were not improved by acupuncture.

How long should Acupuncture Treatment be carried on for?

I generally recommend that my patients be treated for three to four months before progressing to insemination, in vitro fertilization (IVF), or donor-egg transfer. This pacing of treatment seems to have a decided therapeutic effect. I then recommend continued treatment throughout the IUI/IVF cycle, with treatment immediately after the IUI/IVF procedure being especially important.

Once conception has been successfully achieved, I recommend ongoing treatment through pregnancy and to help reduce the possibility of miscarriage.

There are minimal risks in using acupuncture while undergoing fertility treatment. The risk of miscarriage may increase if incorrect acupuncture points are used during pregnancy. This is one reason why those choosing to include acupuncture in their treatment regimen should only be treated by an acupuncturist who had special line of training in treating fertility disorders. Acupuncture is generally safe regardless of a person’s medical history.

Acupuncture and Fertility? Source Article References:

Bernadette Yu

Bernadette Yu is an Ontario Registered Acupuncturist & Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner. She provides Acupuncture Treatment, Chinese Herbal Medicine Consultation and prescriptions, Nutritional Counselling and Bioenergetic testing services in a medical clinic in Mississauga, Ontario.

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