Friday, May 20, 2011

Fertility and Acupuncture

For many couples trying to conceive, the right fertility doctor may be the one who understands fertility and acupuncture. This ancient Chinese healing tool has been rediscovered as a tool for couples using in vitro fertilization (IVF), and also for couples making babies the traditional way.

Acupuncture Enhances the Chances of Successful IVF

Before 2005, almost no fertility doctors outside of China and Japan used acupuncture to assist IVF. In the last two years, however, an increasing number of fertility experts in the US and EU are giving women one or two 60-minute sessions of acupuncture each week to increase the chances of implantation and decrease the chances of miscarriage.

Acupuncture does not guarantee IVF will work. At Magee-Women's Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the USA, about 2 in 3 women who received acupuncture became pregnant, compared to about 1 in 2 who did not. Moreover, a study at Northwestern University in Chicago found that sham acupuncture (sticking the needles in the wrong places) worked about as well as real acupuncture.

But that may be more of a statement about IVF than it is about acupuncture. The process of IVF is so stressful that having needles stuck into your body apparently is relaxing. Or perhaps doctors who don't do acupuncture on a regular basis didn't really know how the procedure works.

Needles in the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time Can Cause Major Problems

Couples trying to conceive need to go to a fertility doctor who has formal training and a separate license in acupuncture. The reason that knowing the right points is so important is that certain kinds of stimulation increase ovulation (for couples who are getting pregnant without IVF) but also stimulate miscarriage.

Once a woman is pregnant, it is important that the acupuncturist not stick any needles in the abdomen. There are also six other points that can cause abortion of the embryo. These are the "shoulder well" (Gallbladder 21), the "Empty Basin" (on the clavicle, known as Stomach 12), the "Compassionate Dragon" (the crossing of three yin lines above the ankle), the "Joining of the Valleys" (also known as Large Intestine 4, on the top of the hand), the "Kun Lun Mountains" (also known as Bladder 60, near the Achilles tendon), and the "Reaching Yin" (Bladder 67, on the outside of the little toe). Stimulating these points after the fertilized egg has been implanted in the uterus actually increases the risk of miscarriage. It is important that women getting acupuncture get the right acupuncture at the right time.

Which Women Benefit Most from Acupuncture?

For couples not seeking to have IVF, the greatest benefits of acupuncture are seen when:

  • The female partner suffers "spasms" of the ovaries that block the release of the egg, or
  • The male partner has a low sperm count or low sperm motility.
Acupuncture treatments for men seeking to become fathers seem to increase sperm count and the percentage of sperm that are motile--although it's important to note that all the clinical trials required their participants to abstain from ejaculation for at least three days before giving a sperm sample, which may have also have increased sperm count.

When the sperm defect is related to "endurance," however, acupuncture is less likely to be helpful. All sperm cells are genetically programmed for apoptosis, to diet shortly after reaching the ovary if they do not fertilized the released egg. Some men produce sperm cells that cease to function while they are still in the cervix, before they have reached the opening of the ovary to fertilize the egg. When this is the problem, the solution may be AI, artificial insemination, which is a much less complicated procedure than IVF.

What About Herbs for Fertility to Accompany Acupuncture?

Unless you happen to be an herbalist, it is best to rely on professional advice for this, too. Certain herbs, such as vitex, increase fertility in women but can even cause testicular atrophy in men. Other herbs increase growth of the uterine lining, which is desirable during the first 14 days of a woman's period, but not desirable after ovulation. 

A professionally trained acupuncturist will also know exactly which herbs complement acupuncture treatments for both the mother and the father. This is not something you should do on your own. Herbal therapies like the Japanese formula hochu-ekki-to, however, may be very helpful for men for whom the causes of infertility chemotherapy, radiation, or toxic exposures.

Are There Any Fertility Foods?

Anti-inflammatory supplements such as microalgae, fish oil, and evening primrose oil may make the cervical mucus more "springy" (so the sperm swim faster to their destination) and also reduce swelling along the veins that serve the testicles in men. These supplements are OK at any time but you should always let your doctors know that you are taking them.

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