Despite your best efforts, building a family sometimes requires outside help. Maybe you are not ovulating or your partner’s sperm numbers are low. Whatever the reasons, you aren’t alone. Nearly seven million American women will seek fertility treatment during their reproductive years, and surveys suggest between one-quarter and one-half add acupuncture to support their conventional treatments. As a Doctor of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine who specializes in reproductive medicine, I am often asked how acupuncture and Chinese medicine can help improve one’s chances of success. Acupuncture is but one treatment within the whole system of Chinese medicine. We don’t fully understand how acupuncture works, but here are three evidence-based ways acupuncture helps patients conceive when other measures alone don’t seem to be working.
1. Acupuncture improves blood flow
One of the first orders of business in supporting reproduction is to ensure your reproductive organs are receiving adequate nourishment. Stress and/or aging can lead to a decline in blood flow to the uterus and ovaries. Acupuncture can increase blood flow by slowing down (or “down-regulating”) the nervous system (central sympathetic nervous system) which then causes the blood vessels to dilate. When the vessels dilate, they release a flood of nutrient dense blood to the ovaries and uterus. Increased ovarian blood flow may help with response to fertility medications. Increased uterine blood flow ensures a thick uterine lining and sets up an ideal environment for implantation. Better response, better eggs, better lining.
2. Acupuncture reduces stress
Couples undergoing fertility treatments experience immense amounts of stress. It is a common reason for stopping treatment altogether. Acupuncture can help reduce the stress. Research shows that when needles are placed in the skin, the body releases its own natural pain killers (endorphins). Endorphins are responsible for the relaxed feeling one gets after a session. It causes your muscles to relax, your breathing to slow, and your mind to calm. We call it “acu-stoned.” This blissful benefit from acupuncture was cited by IVF patients as helping them feel more relaxed during their fertility treatment, and as a result, also feel more “in control.”
3. Acupuncture improves your odds of having a baby with IVF.
The ultimate goal is to have a healthy mother and baby and to give yourself the best chance of success. The acupuncture and IVF research is a little confusing, even after consulting two of the larger analyses, from Mannheimer, and Cheong, respectively. In some studies, acupuncture performed on the day the embryo is placed back in the uterus improved pregnancy rates when compared to a control, while in other studies investigators saw no difference in pregnancy rates. How can we explain this? I think we are looking at the wrong “dose” of acupuncture. Just like the amount of gonadotropins is important to ensuring egg development, so is the dose of acupuncture. In my own published research, I looked at five years of data on women who did IVF alone and compared that with women who added acupuncture on the day of embryo transfer and women who had acupuncture during their IVF cycles, around 13 to 15 sessions. The women who added more acupuncture sessions were twice as likely to have a baby compared to women who did IVF alone, and 60% more likely when compared with women who just had two acupuncture treatments on the day of embryo transfer. Acupuncture helped their IVF outcomes. The key difference was that patients received more treatment.
If you are interested in adding acupuncture to your IVF cycle, ask your doctor for a referral. If your doctor doesn’t have a referral or you have your own, ask your acupuncturist about their level of training and experience in treating fertility patients. They should be able to describe their cases and successes with you, and if they have not established a relationship with your doctor, they should be willing to do so. Some acupuncturists who specialize in treating fertility patients are Fellows of the American Board of Oriental Medicine, which requires its Fellows to pass an exam and receive continuing medical education.
At your initial acupuncture consultation, you can expect a review of your medical history including your bloodwork and tests, gynecological history, review of your partner’s sperm analysis, an interview including a thorough review of systems, and physical exams that include observing the tongue and palpating the wrist pulses. Chinese medicine practitioners will evaluate you based on the system of Chinese medicine and a treatment plan will be made. You can start treatment anytime, but at a minimum, start acupuncture treatment during suppression for the best outcomes.