When To Consider Chinese Medicine in the Treatment of Infertility

What do Mariah Carey and Celine Dion have in common? Besides their superstar celebrity status, both used acupuncture to get pregnant. As media coverage of acupuncture’s role in the treatment of infertility increases, certain questions repeatedly arise from prospective patients. As an acupuncturist specializing in infertility, I will attempt to clarify as much as possible the benefits and drawbacks to beginning a course of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicinal treatment.

Q: What is Oriental Medicine and how does it help with infertility?

A: Oriental Medicine has developed over thousands of years to include acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, tui-na (soft tissue mobilization), and qigong (meditative breathing and movement). The most popular branch of Oriental Medicine in the West, however, is acupuncture. Acupuncture has been proven to increase success rates of IVF by nearly twenty percent when administered in a German study in 2004. Of course, Chinese doctors have known of the benefits of Oriental Medicine in the treatment of infertility long before it was ever studied in the West, with the first known publications on infertility appearing several hundred years ago. Due to recent studies, we now know that acupuncture affects the pituitary gland and acts on the sympathetic nervous system to reduce stress and regulate hormones.

In the treatment of infertility, it has also been shown to increase blood flow to the uterus.

Herbal medicine has been rigorously studied in China and some herbs have been shown to increase sperm motility in men and balance estrogen and progesterone in women.

Q: Both of my fallopian tubes are blocked, can acupuncture help?

A: In this case, ART (assisted reproduction technology), rather than acupuncture, would be recommended. Unfortunately, some patients in this situation pursue “natural” therapies too long when their main or only choice of success is IVF.

Q: What types of infertility respond best to Oriental Medicine?

A: Relatively minor complications such as slightly low sperm counts, irregular ovulation, mild endometriosis, and vague hormonal imbalances tend to respond the fastest. More severe cases of anovulation and moderate to severe endometriosis can be improved but can take longer than the usual three months of treatment. Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine often can correct such imbalances successfully in younger women. Those with infertility due to PCOS also fit into this category. Women over forty might do better with a combination of ART and Oriental Medicine.

Q: My doctor doesn’t want me to take herbs during my IVF cycle, will the acu- puncture alone be effective?

A: While no treatment is 100% guaranteed, acupuncture without Chinese herbs can still be quite effective. Many IVF clinics ask their patients to avoid herbs during a stimulated cycle, which is good advice considering the strong medications that are circulating in the patient’s body. However, in a case where a woman is over the age of 40 and has undergone several unsuccessful IVF and ART attempts already, Chinese medicine might be recommended along with acupuncture (with the agreement of the patient’s doctor) to increase her chances of pregnancy.

Q: Should my partner be undergoing acupuncture and herbal treatment as well?

A: In Oriental medicine theory, both partners should address their health in order to achieve the best outcome. As it takes nearly 90 days for sperm to develop, men are usually asked to begin treatment as early as possible in the case of mildly low sperm count. Additionally, nutritional recommendations are made to maximize treatment benefits. Acupuncture can also assist both partners by decreasing stress and promoting relaxation during IVF treatment.

Q: How long does acupuncture treatment last?

A: A typical acupuncture visit will last anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes depending on complexity, with the initial visit lasting as long as 1 1/2 hours (including examination and treatment). If the patient is considering IVF, acupuncture treatments will usually occur 1-2 times per week, with more frequent visits the week of retrieval and implantation. If trying to conceive naturally, an acupuncture course is usually once per week for at least three to six months (or, if pregnancy is achieved, until end of first trimester). The patient will be re-evaluated periodically and will be encouraged to chart basal body temperature, cervical fluid, etc. to track changes.

Q: I don’t like needles. Is acupuncture painful?

A: This is an important question concerning those undergoing IVF, as the fear of needles will sooner or later have to be addressed. Many patients find acupuncture a good way to relieve their “needle-phobia” in preparation for their injections at the end of their IVF cycle. Acupuncture needles are the width of a human hair, and most patients will feel a sensation similar to a mosquito bite near the point site. Other areas, such as the feet and hands, are more sensitive but rarely bothersome. The effects of acupuncture usually result in relaxation or even a short nap during treatment.

Q: My doctor diagnosed me with “unexplained infertility.” Can acupuncture help?

Although no detectable abnormality is apparent, Chinese medicine often can detect a possible cause. By taking into account an array of symptoms presented from an Oriental medicine perspective, the correct acupuncture and Chinese medicinal protocol can be prescribed. In cases where the patient is motivated, healthy and compliant, the results are often good.

Q: How do I know if my acupuncturist is qualified?

A: In order to practice acupuncture in the state of Florida, an acupuncturist must be licensed by the Florida Department of Health and board certified by the NCCAOM (National Certification Commission of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine). Formal training at an accredited acupuncture school is completed in 3 1/2 to 4 years, in addition to at least 60 credit hours of undergraduate school beforehand. After graduation or during the last year of acupuncture training, the student can complete their training at affiliate hospitals in China. Check your state’s guidelines at www.nccaom.org.

When choosing an acupuncturist, you may first want to inquire as to their main specialty before embarking on your acupuncture journey. Generally, an acupuncturist specializing in infertility is to be sought out, and many websites are devoted now to listing qualified practitioners by region. In 2008, a specialty board called the American Board of Oriental Reproductive Medicine (ABORM) was developed to ensure a higher standard of care for those patients undergoing Traditional Chinese Medicine treatment for infertility. Practitioners have passed a comprehensive exam in both Western and Eastern reproductive medicine in addition to completing additional courses pertaining to infertility. For a complete list of practitioners, go to www.aborm.org.

In my experience, I have found that both Western and Chinese medicine have strong, effective solutions to infertility and both systems of medicine have much to offer one another. As information grows about the benefits of Oriental medicine, it is important that patients develop a “team” of knowledgeable practitioners that understands the strengths and weaknesses of both systems and can help them along the often highly stressful road to fertility.