According to the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, about 3.1 million Americans said they had used acupuncture in the past year. This post on acupuncture and fertility is the first of a series which will discuss the use of acupuncture for different issues, including fertility and pregnancy, myofascial pain (so-called “acupuncture for athletes”) and depression and anxiety.
The Evidence on Acupuncture and Fertility
The scientific literature on acupuncture and fertility is relatively sparse. There have been, however, a few positive notes coming out of peer-reviewed journals in recent years.
In 2008, investigators published a meta-analysis (an analysis of other studies) in the British Journal of Medicine indicating that “acupuncture given with embryo transfer improves rates of pregnancy and live birth among women undergoing in vitro fertilization” (IVF). While The Guardian reported the increased chances of pregnancy to be 65%, the authors of the study actually cautioned that the rate was lower, specifically that “10 women would need to be treated with acupuncture to bring about one additional clinical pregnancy.”
Likewise, in March 2013, researchers from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden concluded in the American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology and Metabolism that “repeated acupuncture treatments resulted in higher ovulation frequency in…women with PCOS [polycystic ovary syndrome].” PCOS is the most common cause of female infertility.
How Does Acupuncture Treat Infertility?
Chinese medicine, she explains, is based on a system of twelve main “meridians,” or invisible channels, that carry energy, or “qi” (pronounced “chee”) throughout the body. You can think of the channels as a life force circulatory system. Eight of the 12 meridians run through the pelvic floor and the reproductive organs.
The basic idea is that when energy is blocked, the body’s whole system is thrown out of balance, just as a fender bender on a major highway can result in hours of snarled traffic. The body works on its own to restore equilibrium, but just like a traffic jam in Times Square on a Friday evening, sometimes you need a traffic cop to help unblock the box. That’s where acupuncturists come in. Using very thin needles made usually of stainless steel, they painlessly stimulate specific points along the meridians to keep energy flowing smoothly in the body.
Women of all stripes can benefit from pre-conception acupuncture. “For a surprising number of women, a lot of it is education about fertility,” Borbet says. She works with clients on understanding the best time to conceive, mapping out their cycle and so on.
For other women, it’s a matter of rebalancing menstrual cycle irregularities. Still others come from a medical doctor who diagnosed them with PCOS, polyps or endometriosis. Sometimes women want to try a “natural” approach, so Borbet works on those particular issues. In other cases, women are taking fertility medication or trying IVF. Borbet says acupuncture can be a great complement in such cases, and the studies reviewed above would seem to support her conclusion.
Acupuncture and Pregnancy
Acupuncture can also help relieve uncomfortable symptoms that accompany pregnancy. Borbet says that the most common complaints people come to her with are back pain, hip pain, sciatica and headaches. But once in her office, she can help relieve other less tangible symptoms like insomnia, acid reflux, constipation and edema (swelling).
Because the meridians run throughout the body, practitioners can access the flow of energy in one of the eight channels that run through the reproductive organs by placing needles distally (in the arms or legs). “That’s how we can treat it all very well without having to do abdominal points” when a woman is pregnant, Borbet says.
Another common use of acupuncture in pregnancy is labor preparation beginning at week 36. A practitioner will try to clear the meridians running through the pelvic floor, making sure the pelvic muscles and uterus are nourished and relaxed.
Although there are no specific studies on the benefit of acupuncture and labor, Borbet notes that, as a doula, she’s attended many births, and women who have had acupuncture in the final weeks of pregnancy have noticeably smoother labor. Acupuncture won’t make your labor less painful or faster, she says, but it can help keep it moving along.
A Personalized Treatment
Acupuncture is a highly personalized treatment modality that takes into account both the chief complaint and a person’s specific constitution. “There are some tried and true points, meridians and balancing treatments,” Borbet says, but everyone is different. There are few contraindications for acupuncture, but if you’d like a consultation, be sure to look for someone who is licensed in the state of New York.