She was beaming with joy when she walked into my consultation room. “I am pregnant at last," she exclaimed.
J, 32, had been married for 5 years with fertility issues. She had regular menses with no abnormal vaginal discharge or menstrual cramps. Pelvic examination and ultrasound scan did not reveal any abnormalities in her reproductive system. Semen analysis of her husband, however, showed a low sperm count with a reduced number of motile sperm.
J sought medical help 2 years after her marriage. She did not get pregnant after three attempts with IUI (intrauterine insemination) and twice with IVF (in-vitro fertilisation). Feeling dejected and depressed, she went back to her home country to have a respite. She decided to have another attempt at the IVF clinic in her hometown. She had acupuncture treatment prior to the fertility treatment there.
What Is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) that has been practised for centuries. It is based on the theory that illness or disease is the consequence of blockage or change in the flow of life energy, called “qi”, that flows through the body in specific channels. Acupuncture tries to rebalance this flow of energy by inserting fine sterile metal needles into the skin at specific places on the body to stimulate the flow of "qi".
Acupuncture for IVF
In 2008, research from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, USA, reviewed a number of randomized controlled trials and found that acupuncture significantly improved pregnancy rates in IVF. Other studies also showed that men could also benefit from acupuncture with an increase in the number of sperm and a reduction in abnormalities of sperm. Women experienced best results from acupuncture three to four months before IVF.
Since then, dozens of trials have been conducted to examine the effects of acupuncture on the outcome of IVF treatment. The results have been inconsistent, leaving the efficacy of adjunctive acupuncture open to debate.
How does acupuncture for fertility treatment work?
How acupuncture works for fertility is not well understood. It is thought that by stimulating the nerve endings under the skin, the body may release chemical substances called neuro-transmitters, which may have positive effects on fertility. These include relieving stress, improving ovarian and follicular function, increasing blood flow to the uterus and facilitating a thick, rich lining of the uterus for the embryo to implant.
Acupuncture has also been shown to help reduce depression, which can be a problem for women struggling with infertility. It can alleviate anxiety that may further contribute to fertility problems.
Acupuncture for other causes of female infertility
Other than blocked fallopian tubes which will not respond to therapy, acupuncture has been used to treat other causes of female fertility. As acupuncture is generally individualized, there have been no large rigorous studies to show conclusively that it will improve pregnancy rates.
What are the risks of acupuncture?
Acupuncture, if done by a certified and licensed professional is generally safe.
J believed that her successful IVF was partly due to acupuncture treatment. But she was not comfortable continuing the treatment during pregnancy. Her antenatal course remained uncomplicated. She is awaiting the arrival of her baby early next year.