Increasingly being recognized as a valid form of treatment by Western doctors, the practice of acupuncture dates back thousands of years in China. While acupuncture has been found to be helpful in treating a variety of ailments, from pain management to quitting smoking, recent studies have shown that it can also be beneficial to those experiencing infertility.
From East ...
Although modern medical science has failed to conclusively explain just how it works, acupuncture has been used by people for more than 3000 years. In the 1600s, Jesuit Monks imported the knowledge of acupuncture to France where it quickly spread throughout Europe. In the United States, though, acupuncture has only just begun to be widely practiced - within the last 20 years, or so.
Acupuncture is based in the Chinese belief that a balance in the energy flow (known as qi and chi) through the body is needed in order to stay healthy. When a blockage or imbalance occurs in that flow, your health is negatively impacted. There are 20 major pathways that qi is believed to travel along. These pathways, or meridians, are accessible through 400 different acupuncture points.
Based on the problem you’re experiencing, different combinations of points are stimulated using acupuncture needles. These long, thin needles vary in length according to which point it is to be inserted into. By stimulating these points, energy flow is rebalanced and your natural healing ability can do its work.
The practice of acupuncture remains somewhat controversial among Westerners. Because modern scientific thought can’t explain just how acupuncture works, many refuse to believe that this ancient medicine is anything more than a bunch of mumbo jumbo. The fact that the energy pathways don’t actually correspond to any recognized body system (like the blood or nervous system) only increases people’s skepticism.
However, the National Institutes of Health in the United States have noted that many researchers are investigating the issue. Some possible theories as to just why acupuncture works include:
- Changes to the central nervous system during acupuncture sessions alter the regulation of blood pressure and flow as well as body temperature
- Acupuncture stimulates the central nervous system causing neurotransmitters and neurohormones to be released, thereby boosting your body’s natural ability to heal itself.
- Acupuncture reduces pain by releasing the endorphins, which naturally occur in the body’s pain control system, into the central nervous system.
Regardless of just how it works, the fact remains that it is a relatively painless procedure with minimal side effects when done by a professional. The most common risks associated with acupuncture include puncturing the organs, transmitting infectious diseases, broken or forgotten needles and minor bleeding. However, going to a fully trained and certified practitioner significantly reduces these risks. Acupuncture should not be performed on people with bleeding disorders or those using blood thinners.
Acupuncture and Infertility
On its own, acupuncture can be seen as an alternative way of treating fertility problems. It is also often seen as a complementary therapy to modern fertility treatments. When used alone, though, acupuncture is probably most effective for those couples who are experiencing a functional problem, like irregular ovulation, rather than a structural problem, like a blockage in the sperm ducts. Some practitioners will also recommend Chinese herbs for infertility that will supplement the acupuncture and any other treatment you may be receiving. If you take herbs while receiving other medical treatments, be sure to tell your doctor. Some herbs can interfere with the function of fertility drugs and procedures.
Why acupuncture works for infertility problems is still debatable. However, most practicing acupuncturists say that acupuncture helps by regulating your body’s system. This aids in blood flow to the reproductive organs and stabilizes hormone levels. This in turn will increase ovarian function in women as well as sperm production in men.
Used as a complementary form of therapy for women undergoing other fertility treatments, acupuncture has been proven to be especially beneficial. Some believe that acupuncture works by helping women stay more relaxed through stressful fertility treatments. In particular, studies have shown that acupuncture definitely increases the rate of pregnancy in women undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF).
A German study done in 2002 showed that of the 80 women who underwent IVF and received acupuncture, 34 women got pregnant, a success rate of 42.5%. Of the 80 women involved in the study who received IVF without any acupuncture treatments, only 21 women (26.3%) became pregnant. More recently, an American study involving 114 women showed that 51% of the women who had acupuncture and IVF treatments became pregnant versus only 36% of the women who had IVF alone. Deeper analysis of this study revealed that, while 8% of the women in the acupuncture group miscarried, the rate of miscarriage in the IVF-only group was 20%. Furthermore, women who received acupuncture also had lower rates of ectopic pregnancies.
Finding An Acupuncturist
Many medical doctors utilize acupuncture in their everyday practice. These doctors need 200 to 300 hours of acupuncture training to be allowed to practice on people. There are many more professionals who specialize just in acupuncture. These individuals have between 2,000 and 3,000 hours of training and have completed board exams to receive their certification. Regardless of which type of professional you prefer, there are some things to keep in mind when deciding on who to see.
Always check that a potential acupuncturist has the appropriate training and certification as mandated by your state or province (the requirements can vary depending on where you live). Ask your friends and family if there is anyone they would recommend. And don’t forget to inquire about the cost of the treatment. Some insurance plans cover acupuncture treatments, so you may want to look into that as well.
Acupuncture is not a one-time procedure, though. You will need to see your acupuncturist once or twice a week for a series of weeks or possibly even months. A series of up to 12 treatments is normal. Each appointment will take about an hour and should include time for an exam and discussion of your current condition, things you can do yourself at home and any questions you may have.
Revision date: June 22, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD