The ancient Chinese practice of acupuncture is fast-becoming an accepted supplement to modern-day assisted reproductive technology that helps infertile couples become parents. “More doctors are open to referring patients to complementary medicine for their reproductive health as well as for their emotional well-being,” says Mimi Baker, a licensed acupuncturist in Princeton, New Jersey, who practices traditional Chinese medicine and works in conjunction with fertility experts.
Dr. Frederick L. Licciardi, a professor at the NYU Langone Fertility Center, where he directs the Fertility Wellness Program, says more women are seeking ancillary services while they pursue fertility treatments. The program offers acupuncture, yoga, psychological services, nutrition and mind-body classes.
“Women and couples face many pressures when they are undergoing fertility treatment. Anything we can do to promote their emotional well-being and make the process easier so they can continue with their treatment is beneficial,” says Licciardi, a reproductive endocrinologist and co-founder of the fertility center. About 7.4 million women of childbearing age have used infertility services, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Assisted reproductive techniques include medication, artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization, which involves the transfer of an embryo created in a laboratory dish to the uterus.
An ancient form of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture involves the painless placement of ultrathin needles into strategic points on the body to balance Qi (pronounced chee) – a form of “life energy” believed to flow throughout the body. A blocked Qi can lead to physical and emotional illness. “Acupuncture helps to stimulate the body’s own healing mechanism,” says Baker, who is treating an increasing number of women in their mid-30s to early 40s.
Experts believe acupuncture can increase blood flow to the pelvic area (which could help with embryo implantation), regulate the menstrual cycle, trigger ovulation and reduce the side effects of medications associated with assisted reproductive technology. It also increases the release of endorphins, the body’s mood-enhancing hormone that reduces stress and relieves pain. “A lot of good hormonal things happen when people are deeply relaxed,” says Steve Blumenthal, a licensed acupuncturist with the Green Hills Natural Health Clinic in Nashville, Tennessee, and a fellow of the American Board of Oriental Reproductive Medicine. Women with fertility issues represent about 70 percent of his practice.
Women undergoing high-tech fertility treatments may have acupuncture for many weeks, including the day of the embryo transfer during IVF. A 2002 study of 160 women found that adding acupuncture to the IVF treatment protocol increased pregnancy rates by 42.5 percent versus 26.3 percent for those who did not have acupuncture. “This study catapulted acupuncture into the world of in vitro fertilization because it made physicians aware of some of merits of doing acupuncture,” Baker says.
Acupuncturists also treat women with fertility problems – like a lack of ovulation – who choose not to pursue modern medical options. “Western medicine believes that egg quality can only continuously go down,” Blumenthal says. “Whereas in Chinese medicine, we feel we can nourish egg quality with herbs and a little bit of acupuncture." Blumenthal uses acupuncture along with a basal body temperature chart to track hormonal and temperature changes during the menstrual cycle. Women take their basal body temperature every morning before getting out of bed.
“Modern technology such as the basal body thermometer, can help us know if we are actually regulating the energy and hormones,” he says. Despite its growing popularity, many experts believe conclusive scientific evidence on the efficacy of using acupuncture to treat infertility remains elusive. “Women should not have acupuncture because they were told it will increase their chances of becoming pregnant,” Licciardi says. He cites the conclusion of a leading medical journal that reviewed 20 top studies: “There is no evidence that acupuncture improves live birth or pregnancy rates in assisted reproduction.”“I do embrace acupuncture,” he adds. “I just don’t want to oversell it.”
Fertility specialists cite the importance of seeing a medical doctor to identify any physical problems that might require traditional medical and surgical interventions. Experts also advise patients who want acupuncture to seek a licensed professional. In the future, Blumenthal expects more women will use acupuncture as a first-line treatment for infertility rather than after failed IVF attempts. “I see women trying Chinese medicine first for six to nine months before moving along to more invasive and expensive techniques,” he says.