In around one-fifth of infertility cases, there’s no known cause. This is frustrating and distressing for these couples and, while many go on to have successful pregnancies with IVF and other technologies, there are many who choose to look at alternative therapies either instead of, or in conjunction with, traditional Western medical treatments.
Acupuncture fertility treatment is thought to have a positive effect on sperm formation and production in males and in promoting optimal hormonal balance in females.
Despite a long tradition of using acupuncture to treat fertility problems in the past, there were few scientific studies to confirm the link between acupuncture and fertility until recently; and with scientific support now fairly clear, there’s a lot more acupuncture clinics which offer treatment for couples experiencing fertility problems.
Acupuncture fertility treatment: theory
Traditional Chinese medicine is based on theories about energy paths that run through our body, called meridians. Health problems – including infertility – are the result of blockages in these meridians that disrupt the flow of energy (called chi) through the body.
A trained acupuncturist spends a number of years learning to analyse a patient’s chi and find the right way to enhance their energy flow and undo blockages.
Using acupuncture needles, particular points of the body are targeted so that chi can again flow freely.
Few scientists have been able to offer explanations about how acupuncture works, although there have been a convincing number of peer-reviewed scientific studies that demonstrate its effectiveness in treating a variety of conditions, including fertility problems.
Some scientists believe that acupuncture needles may trigger the release of particular hormones which change the body’s response to a particular condition or illness. There’s evidence that acupuncture will often result in the stimulation of the body’s natural healing abilities through the release of beta-endorphins which reduce pain.
A number of 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; these include the 2002 study ‘fMRI Neurophysiological Evidence Of Acupuncture Mechanisms’ by Cho and others which is often quoted as medical evidence.
Acupuncture and Fertility: IVF
A recent series of studies (including a single-blind, controlled, randomised acupuncture trial in the University of Adelaide fertility clinic Repromed) found that acupuncture increased the success rates of IVF embryo transfer by around 50 percent.
Many Australian IVF clinics now offer acupuncture fertility treatment routinely to couples undergoing IVF and other ART treatments.
Some practitioners combine acupuncture fertility treatment with Chinese herbal medicine fertility treatment.
Acupuncture fertility treatment is thought to improve hormone balance, increase blood circulation in the uterus, and reduce the likelihood of miscarriage.
When used in combination with IVF and other ART treatments, acupuncture fertility treatment can improve the likelihood of a successful embryo transfer.
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.
Acupuncture and fertility: endocrine function
Some research suggests that women with fertility problems that are related to endocrine dysfunctionality may have more success with acupuncture than with Western drug treatment.
A study in 2005 at Lanzhou City Hospital in China on 240 cases of infertility divided study participants randomly into two treatment groups and found that those who received acupuncture had far greater pregnancy success than those who took a clomiphene drug treatment.
Many fertility clinics are willing to combine drug-based treatment with acupuncture and if you are interested in doing this, it’s worth finding medical specialists and trained qualified acupuncturists who will work together.
Acupuncture and fertility: stress
Many acupuncture clinics focus on delivering treatment in a calm, relaxing environment and acupuncture is often used as a treatment to reduce stress and anxiety. This is one reason why acupuncture is thought to be a helpful co-treatment for those undergoing IVF or other ART treatments which can be very stressful.
How acupuncture fertility treatment works
Most acupuncture practitioners will take a case history and do their own assessment before designing a therapy.
A number of different acupuncture treatments are used to treat infertility; these include acupuncture needling (which uses a series of very thin needles on particular external points on the body, including soles of the feet, palms, limbs, even ears), electronic stimulation of acupuncture points, changes in diet, Chinese herbal medicines and recommendations for changes in general lifestyle.
The acupuncture points selected for fertility treatment will vary between patients; however commonly known acupuncture points related to female fertility are on the lower back, the lower abdomen, and the legs. There are also common acupuncture points on the head, neck, upper back and arms which promote relaxation and points on the ear which are thought to influence hormonal disorders.
Why choose acupuncture fertility treatment?
Most reputable acupuncture practitioners recommend acupuncture for ‘functional’ rather than ‘structural’ causes of infertility – that is, if causes are thought to be hormonal or concerned with bodily substances rather than ‘structural’ – for example, those which involve tube blockages or which might be treated with surgery.
Choosing an acupuncturist
You may be able to get a recommendation for a reputable qualified practitioner from your own doctor or if you are attending a fertility clinic, you may find a practitioner that is recommended by the clinic.
It is wise to look for an acupuncturist who is associated with a reputable accreditation authority with a good code of ethics; in Australia, the Australian Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine Association Ltd is the leading national professional association of acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners. Visit the AACMA website for a list of accredited members.
By Fran Molloy, journalist and mum of four