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How Does Acupuncture Help Fertility?

Ancient and Modern Theories on Why Acupuncture May Improve Fertility

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Updated November 21, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Picture of a woman receiving acupuncture treatment.

Woman receiving acupuncture treatment.

Photo (c) Anthony Saint James / Getty

Acupuncture is one of the most popular forms of alternative medicine used to improve fertility and possibly treat infertility. But how exactly is sticking little needles into the body supposed to help you get pregnant? How does it work?

There are two ways to ways to answer this question. We can answer this question from the so-called Eastern perspective. In other words, with what traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) say about acupuncture and fertility.

We can also answer the question from the Western point of view: What does the medical research suggest about acupuncture? How can acupuncture help those with infertility?

How Acupuncture May Work, According to Traditional Chinese Medicine

I asked Jill Blakeway -- licensed acupuncturist, certified herbalist, Clinic Director of The YinOva Center in New York City, and co-author of the book Making Babies: A Proven Three Month Program for Maximum Fertility (Little Brown, 2009) -- to explain how acupuncture works.

According to classical Chinese philosophy, Blakeway says, we have channels of "energy" called meridians that run through our bodies. "They are often compared to rivers running through the body, in order to nourish the tissues," she explains. "Stagnation in the flow of these energy rivers is like a dam that is backed up."

According to traditional Chinese medicine, disruption of the flow can lead to physical and emotional illnesses, including infertility. These meridians can be affected by needling specific points, also known as acupuncture points. By needling the acupuncture points, the flow of the energy gets "unstuck" and is allowed to flow in a free and balanced way.

How Acupuncture May Work, According to the Current Research

Of course, the Western, scientific explanation is quite different. The truth of the matter is that no one is sure how acupuncture works. But there are theories.

One theory is that by needling points on the body, chemicals and hormones are triggered and released. "These chemicals either change the experience of pain, or they trigger a cascade of chemicals and hormones which influence the body's own internal regulating system," Blakeway says. "The improved energy flow and biochemical balance produced by acupuncture stimulates the body's natural healing abilities, and enhances physical and emotional well-being."

Research has shown specifically that acupuncture increases the amount of beta-endorphins flowing through the body. Beta-endorphins are feel-good hormones that help lessen pain. Exercise is also known to boost the amount of beta-endorphins in the body. If you've ever experienced a "runner's high," you've enjoyed a boost of beta-endorphins.

But some interesting research on acupuncture points may imply that it's more than just beta-endorphins and hormones at play. In a research study at UC Irvine, researchers used MRIs to look at the brain while patients received acupuncture treatment.

"Traditionally, acupuncturists have used a point on the little toe to address eye pain," says Blakeway. "The point is chosen because it is on the same meridian as the eye." What's amazing is that in this study, when the point on the foot for eye pain was stimulated, the part of the brain that regulates vision lit up.

Acupuncture and Infertility

The research on acupuncture and infertility is ongoing, and the topic is controversial. Some studies have been too small to prove a definitive connection to improved pregnancy rates, and some studies contradict each other in their results. Other studies question whether any benefits are simply a result of the placebo effect.

With that said, here are a few of possible benefits of acupuncture, according to the preliminary research:

  • Improved pregnancy rates during IVF treatment cycles, when acupuncture takes place on the day of embryo transfer
  • Increased blood flow to the uterus, leading to an improved endometrial lining
  • Reduced stress and anxiety levels
  • Possible improvement in ovulation for women with PCOS
  • Possible improvement in sperm count and quality in men with infertility
  • Possible regulation of gonadotropin-releasing hormone, which in turn could help regulate ovulation

Will acupuncture help you get pregnant? It's hard to say. Some have found that acupuncture reduces stress and anxiety, which at least may help you deal with infertility related stress.

If acupuncture's something you'd like to try, be sure to seek out a licensed acupuncturist. There are acupuncturists who specialize in fertility, and some are associated with fertility clinics. Ask your reproductive endocrinologist for a recommendation.

More on natural and alternative treatments for infertility:

Would you like to receive trying to conceive tips and infertility information every week? Sign up for a free fertility newsletter here!

Sources:

Domar AD, Meshay I, Kelliher J, Alper M, Powers RD. "The impact of acupuncture on in vitro fertilization outcome." Fertility and Sterility. Mar 1, 2008. [Epub ahead of print]

Huang ST, Chen AP. "Traditional Chinese medicine and infertility." Current Opinions in Obstetrics and Gynecology. June 2008; 20(3):211-5.

Jones JP, Bae YK. "Ultrasonic Visualization and Stimulation of Classical Oriental Acupuncture Points." Medical Acupuncture. Vol. 15, Issue 2. Accessed online on October 19, 2008. http://www.medicalacupuncture.org/aama_marf/journal/vol15_2/article3.html

Manheimer E, Zhang G, Udoff L, Haramati A, Langenberg P, Berman BM, Bouter LM. "Effect of acupuncture on rates of pregnancy and live birth among women undergoing in vitro fertilization: systematic review and meta-analysis." British Medical Journal. March 8, 2008; 336(7643):545-9. Epub 2008 Feb 7.

Meldrum DR, Fisher AR, Butts SF, Su HI, Sammel MD. “Acupuncture--help, harm, or placebo?” Fertility and Sterility. June 2013;99(7):1821-4. doi: 10.1016/j.fertnstert.2012.12.046. Epub 2013 Jan 26.

Ng EH, So WS, Gao J, Wong YY, Ho PC. "The role of acupuncture in the management of subfertility." Fertility and Sterility. July 2008; 90(1):1-13. Epub 2008 Apr 28.

Paulus WE, Zhang M, Strehler E, El-Danasouri I, Sterzik K. "Influence of acupuncture on the pregnancy rate in patients who undergo assisted reproduction therapy." Fertility and Sterility. April 2002; 77(4):721-4.

Sullivan, Michele G. "Study Questions Benefit of Acupuncture in IVF." Ob. Gyn. News. Volume 42, Issue 21, Page 21 (1 November 2007). Accessed on October 19, 2008. http://www.obgynnews.com/article/PIIS0029743707709217/fulltext

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