Acupuncture fails to boost IVF success in study

While some studies have suggested that acupuncture might boost a woman’s chances of becoming pregnant through in-vitro fertilization (IVF), new findings question whether there is a true benefit.

In a study of 160 women who underwent IVF at one infertility clinic, researchers found that those who were randomly assigned to have acupuncture right before and after their treatment were no more likely to become pregnant than those who had a “sham” version of acupuncture.

Of women in the acupuncture group, 45 percent were found to be pregnant five to six weeks after their IVF cycle. The rate was 53 percent among those who received the sham procedure.

Acupuncture has been used for more than 2,000 years in Chinese medicine to treat a wide variety of ailments. According to traditional medicine, specific acupuncture points on the skin are connected to internal pathways that conduct energy, or qi (“chee”), and stimulating these points with a fine needle promotes the healthy flow of qi.

IVF involves fertilizing a woman’s eggs in a lab dish, then transferring the resulting embryos to her uterus.

Some past studies have found that acupuncture, performed around the time of the embryo transfer, may boost a woman’s chances of becoming pregnant. But it was unclear whether that reflected a true effect of acupuncture or some “non-specific” effect of having an additional therapy.

So for the new study, Dr. Irene Moy and colleagues at Northwestern University in Chicago randomly assigned women undergoing IVF at their fertility clinic to one of two treatment groups. In one, women received two sessions of “true” acupuncture, delivered to points that are connected to fertility, according to traditional Chinese medicine; women in the other group received needle stimulation to body sites not used in acupuncture.

In both groups, the sessions were performed right before and after the embryo transfer.

In the end, Moy’s team found, women who received the sham acupuncture had a higher pregnancy rate - though the difference was not significant in statistical terms.

The findings are not the final word on acupuncture and IVF, however, according to Moy and her colleagues.

One possibility, they note, is that acupuncture needling, even performed at non-acupuncture sites, has some sort of effect on IVF pregnancy rates that is outside of the principles of traditional Chinese medicine. If that’s the case, effects of the sham acupuncture used in this study might have masked any benefit of the traditional version.

The researchers say that future studies could compare true acupuncture with “placebo” needles that do not penetrate the skin.

They also note that the protocol used in this and other clinical trials - acupuncture sessions only on the day of the embryo transfer - may not be adequate. In real-world practice, acupuncturists treating women with fertility problems would typically perform several sessions over weeks or months.

SOURCE: Fertility and Sterility, online June 21, 2010.

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