This week, we are taking a look at the practice of acupuncture and how a few pokes and pricks can help better your chances of getting pregnant!
Where Does Acupuncture Come From?
When one thinks of acupuncture, one might instantly think of other branches of the traditional Chinese medicine tree, along with tui na, tai chi, and herbal supplementation. In reality, acupuncture may actually have foundations as far back as the Stone Age, when sharp tools were used to drain abscesses and let blood. It has a recorded history of about 3,000 years– the first documentation of an “organized system of diagnosis and treatment” for acupuncture was in The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine (or the “Huangdi Neijing”) from about 100 BC.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has always taken the effects of acupuncture very seriously, and it has developed in leaps and bounds since its inception. The document titled Lingshu, translated as “Miraculous Pivot”, lists nine types of acupuncture needles: Filiform, Shear, Round-Pointed, Spoon, Lance, Round-Sharp, Stiletto, Long, and Big. These classical needles were originally made from bronze, gold, or silver, but modern acupuncture uses only super-thin stainless steel filiform needles.
Physicians have been practicing acupuncture in the United States since the 1800s, and it has been on the rise ever since. Acupuncture started entering the American mainstream starting in the 1970s after President Nixon went to China. The first school of acupuncture in the US was the New England School of Acupuncture which opened in the Boston area in 1975. Since then, the field has grown rapidly and has become a household name in alternative medicine.
How Does it Work?
Acupuncture is the insertion of thin needles into certain parts of the body to elicit bodily responses and affect physical and mental function. In the traditional sense, it was thought that this process would stimulate your life energy (often called “chi” or “qi”) so that it flows properly through channels called “meridians.” Acupuncture is founded on the idea that disruption of your life energy-flow is responsible for disease and health issues. Acupuncture supposedly corrects and regulates your life energy, unblocking inner pathways and ensuring a flow that balances your emotional, mental, and physical well-being.
While the traditional definition may not sound very scientifically accurate, there has been some research that suggests very real and positive physical results, especially in regards to fertility. Some studies have shown that acupuncture has an effect on brain chemicals called endorphins, which can affect the levels of the pituitary hormones that control the function of the ovaries. Therefore, acupuncture may be able to influence ovulation and fertility. It may also help improve blood flow to the uterus– a definite plus.
Acupuncture may also be used with IVF treatments before embryo transfer to relax the uterus. Contractions of the uterus at the time of embryo transfer may result in the expulsion of the embryos. If contractions can be reduced with acupuncture, there may be an improved chance of pregnancy.
One thing about acupuncture that seems to have a general consensus is its effects on stress. It stimulates the release of the previously mentioned endorphins, which reduce pain and produce a sense of well-being, along with regulating your hormones.
Acupuncture may also help when the lining of the uterus is too weak to sustain a pregnancy — a problem that is also known to increase the risk of chronic miscarriage. For this reason, many choose to use acupuncture a few months before they plan to conceive, and up to three months after.
If you’re squeamish about needles and blood; don’t worry– the needles used are small, thin, and when properly utilized, cause no discomfort whatsoever. Many treatments start with a short needling session, leaving the majority of the session for quiet relaxation and meditation. Many people even fall asleep during the process!
Does it Really Help?
The bottom line is that there haven’t been enough clinical studies to prove that acupuncture will solve fertility issues, or any issues, for that matter. However, there is preliminary data indicating acupuncture may improve menstrual health and coping for women experiencing delays getting pregnant. There is also experimental data showing that acupuncture can influence female reproductive functioning, although the actual mechanisms involved are not yet clarified. Further well-conducted clinical research would benefit our understanding of the usefulness of acupuncture to women’s health.
Acupuncture seems to have the most success when combined with other treatments. For example, in one German study, one group of women going through in vitro fertilization supplemented with regular acupuncture appointments while the other group stuck with IVF alone. About 42% of the group that used acupuncture as well as IVF got pregnant, compared to the 32% of the group that got pregnant only using IVF.
Despite this promising study, there are some situations in which acupuncture is not the answer. In instances where a structural defect exists — such as a blocked fallopian tube, or a fibroid tumor — acupuncture won’t help you get pregnant. Tubal adhesions which can occur as a result of pelvic inflammatory disease or endometriosis can’t be treated with acupuncture either. Additionally, once past a certain age, no amount of channeling your chi is going to increase necessary hormones that have gone out of production.
While we have yet to prove that acupuncture alone will make a definite, positive impact on your fertility treatment, it is confirmed that acupuncture does not cause any problems when done correctly. Many can vouch for its success on a personal level, even without the backing of scientific data. It may be worth exploring acupuncture as an option, especially in conjunction with other treatments.
Is it Safe?
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health confirms that acupuncture is safe as long as practitioners use the right equipment and keep their environment and materials clean. This means they will use acupuncture needles that follow the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines in that they are sterile, nontoxic, and labeled for single use.
You will also want to look for a practitioner who is licensed– in most states, acupuncture is a licensed profession, however, licensing requirements will vary from state to state. You can find Board-licensed acupuncturists in your area by searching online (try www.nccaom.org), but it should be noted that some practitioners will have different specialties and expertise.
If you are seeking acupuncture treatment to increase your chances of getting pregnant, you will want to look for a practitioner that has the specific knowledge and proper training to help with reproductive disorders and fertility treatments. More so, look for one who is associated with a major academic medical center, or one vouched for by your fertility clinic or specialist.
As you would before starting any new health regimen, it is a good idea to discuss your acupuncture treatment plan with your GP, obstetrician, and reproductive medicine specialist before you begin it. Acupuncture is also associated with Chinese herbal medicine, but be sure to speak to a doctor before incorporating any new herbs into your vitamin routine.
Are There Any Risks?
When done properly, there are few to no side effects and risks to worry about while receiving acupuncture treatment (aside from perhaps a bit of bruising). In fact, it is considered to be generally safe no matter your medical condition.
The real risk comes from choosing a practitioner who is not qualified or properly licensed. Lack of training or jittery-nerves can lead to them pushing the needle too far, which can cause injuries such as puncture wounds, infections at the puncture sites, and excessive bleeding.
Additionally, if you are undergoing an IVF protocol and acupuncture simultaneously, once you reach the implantation stage it’s imperative to get a pregnancy test before proceeding with more acupuncture treatments. If you are trying to get pregnant on your own it is equally important to have your pregnancy verified by an obstetrician as soon as possible. Some of the same points used to stimulate the uterus and increase fertility may also cause a miscarriage — so your acupuncturist needs to know if you are, or could be pregnant.
When Should I Start Acupuncture in My Fertility Treatment? When Should I Stop?
While most fertility specialists won’t treat patients unless they’ve tried unsuccessfully to conceive for six months to a year, a woman can start seeing an acupuncturist long before she hopes to get pregnant — especially if she has any fertility concerns.
Acupuncture is similar to physical therapy in that it is a process-oriented method of medical intervention. It is better to do more than less. Patients are commonly treated for three to four months before progressing to insemination, in vitro fertilization (IVF), or donor-egg transfer.
Most miscarriages typically occur within the first 3 months of pregnancy. Consequently, treatment of patients may often last through week twelve to help prevent miscarriage.