When a couple is trying to have a baby and can't, it can be emotionally and financially draining. But help may be available in an unexpected form: acupuncture.
Medical experts believe that this ancient therapy from China, which involves placing numerous thin needles at certain points in the body, can help improve fertility in both men and women.
"Acupuncture has been around for almost 3,000 years. It's safe and there are rarely any side effects," explained Lisa Lilienfield, MD, a family practice and pain management specialist at the Kaplan Center for Integrative Medicine in McLean, Virginia. "It may not be the only thing that is done in isolation to treat infertility, but it helps get the body primed and maximizes the potential effects of fertility treatments," she added.
Jamie Grifo, MD, director of the NYU Fertility Center and director of the division of reproductive endocrinology at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, said, "it's not a panacea, but acupuncture does help some patients have better success."
"It's one non-traditional modality to help manage the stress of infertility, and it does improve pregnancy rates and quality of life in some people," he said.
Studies that have been done on acupuncture and fertility have had mixed results, with some showing benefits and others showing none. Dr. Grifo said the differing results might have something to do with the design of the studies. Two areas that appear to be more consistently helped by acupuncture treatments are in vitro fertilization (IVF) and women who are infertile due to polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), IVF is a procedure that manually combines an egg and sperm in a laboratory dish. If fertilization occurs, the embryo is then transferred into a woman's uterus. PCOS, a condition in which a hormone imbalance occurs, affects a woman's menstrual period, making it difficult to become pregnant.
Two studies--one published in Acupuncture in Medicine and the other in the Journal of Endocrinological investigation-found a benefit when acupuncture was used on the day an embryo was transferred into a woman's uterus.
The study from the Journal of Endocrinological Investigation also found that women with PCOS and infertile men could also benefit from acupuncture.
How Acupuncture Boosts Fertility
In addition to relieving stress, Dr. Lilienfield said that acupuncture can help increase a woman's fertility by improving blood flow to the ovaries and uterus. This improved blood flow can help thicken the lining of the uterus, increasing the chances of conception.
It may also help correct problems with the body's neuroendocrine system. Acupuncture can help activate the brain to release hormones that will stimulate the ovaries, adrenal glands and other organs that are involved in reproduction, according to Dr. Lilienfield. Acupuncture's effect on the neuroendocrine system may also help infertile men by stimulating sperm production, she said.
The actual acupuncture treatment session involves placing very thin needles at specific points in the body. In Chinese medicine, these points are believed to be areas where a per son's "qi" (pronounced chee), or life force, is blocked, according to the US National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. In Western medicine, it's believed that the needle placement may release the body's natural painkillers.
Acupuncture is commonly used to treat pain, such as back pain, headache and menstrual cramps, according to the center.
When To Get Help For Infertility
In general, someone younger than 35 is often advised to try to get pregnant for about a year before seeking treatment for infertility. "But, if you're anxious to get going, six months is a reasonable time to wait," Dr. Lilienfield said. And women older than 35 probably shouldn't wait more than six months, she added.
Dr. Grifo said he doesn't favor waiting that long to seek treatment. "If you are trying to get pregnant and struggling with it, you don't need to wait a year," he said. "And, if you're over 35, don't wait six months if it's causing you distress."