In my conversations with readers and with other people “in real life,” I’m often asked if I’ve tried acupuncture for infertility. The answer is that I’ve been regularly going to acupuncture for almost two years. If I’m being honest, I don’t know if it has had any effect on my fertility, but I do know that it provides a level of relaxation, comfort, and rest that I haven’t been able to find elsewhere. I can also say that I have experienced headache relief and relief from other aches and pains.
In an effort to find out more about how acupuncture for infertility patients, I contacted three acupuncturists who specialize in fertility issues. I’m sure you’ll find their insight as interesting and enlightening as I did.
Here’s a brief introduction to the experts I interviewed:
Randine Lewis (RL), Ph.D, L.Ac. (pictured left), is the author of The Way of The Fertile Soul and The Infertility Cure: The Ancient Chinese Wellness Program for Getting Pregnant and Having Healthy Babies, and her work is regularly featured in the international media including on CBS The Early Show and in the Washington Post, The Economist, the Wall Street Journal Europe, the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Therapies, Elle magazine, Organic Style magazine, Pregnancy magazine and other publications.
Rikke Blessing (RB), MS, L.Ac. (pictured center), is the founder of Blessing Acupuncture in Monterey, California. She is a fellow of the American Board of Oriental Reproductive Medicine, and on the faculty at the Chinese medical college in Oakland, California, where she teaches Gynecology. She is fluent in English, Danish, and Mandarin Chinese, and has translated classical and modern Chinese texts about Traditional Chinese Medicine and its principles and philosophy. I once received a treatment from Rikke when my regular acupuncturist was unavailable and she was so lovely!
Angela Wu (AW), L.Ac, O.M.D (pictured right) has over 30 years of experience in acupuncture, Chinese medicine, and herbology. She’s the founder of Wu’s Healing Center in San Francisco, California, and the author of the book, Fertility Wisdom: How Traditional Chinese Medicine can Help Overcome Infertility.
Q. How can acupuncture help patients with infertility?
RL: I do not view acupuncture as a modality unto itself that resolves infertility. It is a complex system that can realign certain physical aspects that have been blocking conception. Acupuncture by itself can harmonize hormones, improve implantation, and increase circulation to the reproductive hormones. But that in itself cannot bring about life. Acupuncture was intended to be part of a complex system of energetically uncovering imbalances – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, lifestyle, relational, etc., to illuminate where one’s life was no longer in harmony with nature. When acupuncture is used without addressing the causes of the imbalance, I do not find it extremely effective at overcoming obstructions to the life force. Yet, when it can allow the individual to tap much deeper into ways into which her life has come out of harmony with her deepest nature, it can be an extremely effective tool. When I work with individuals now, I rarely perform acupuncture. I try to get them to discover their own inner obstructions and alleviate them – which is then curative. Otherwise I see it as a crutch.
RB: Acupuncture and Chinese medicine are safe and effective treatment options for couples trying to conceive naturally or with the help of assisted reproductive techniques such as IUI and IVF. From the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine, fertility is viewed as an extension of a well functioning organism. Inability to conceive is a sign that one or several body systems are not performing optimally, resulting in infertility. When imbalances are corrected with acupuncture and herbal treatment, health and fertility naturally improves. Acupuncture and herbal medicine focus on gently re-establishing body functions in order to facilitate conception, a healthy pregnancy, and successful delivery. Treatment is centered around correcting the underlying problems and achieving the best conceivable health, including sleeping well, eating well, eliminating well, and menstruating well. The preferred approach is to strengthen the patient’s underlying deficiencies and improve her overall well being before she attempts pregnancy. This is to ensure the best environment for the growing fetus, as well as to keep the woman strong and healthy during and after the pregnancy.
If there are severe issues such as blocked tubes or very poor quality sperm, the best approach is to combine Chinese medicine with modern reproductive medicine. Studies have shown that acupuncture significantly increases the success rate of ART treatments. In addition, while infertility techniques such as IVF can yield great quantities of eggs per cycle and thereby increase the chances of conception, the focus of Traditional Chinese Medicine is always on quality – both of the eggs and the health of the woman undergoing treatment. Not only does acupuncture increase the likelihood of conceptual success, but it also reduces the side effects and discomfort often associated with artificial hormone manipulation. Current research and time-tested experience shows that Traditional Chinese Medicine is able to:
• Regulate the menstrual cycle and hormonal functions
• Decrease elevated levels of FSH and normalize ovulation
• Stimulate blood circulation and increase the endometrial lining
• Control vaginal PH levels, eliminate yeast, and improve cervical fluid
• Reduce stress and increase libido
• Strengthen the immune system and restore reproductive health
• Treat endometriosis and blocked fallopian tubes
• Improve sperm quality, motility, and volume
AW: Studies have shown that acupuncture can increase the success rate of IVF. In the most well known study conducted in Germany in 2002 by Wolfgang E. Paulus, he compared pregnancy rates of two groups of women undergoing IVF. The group receiving acupuncture 25 minutes before, and 25 minutes after embryo transfer had a pregnancy rate of 42.5% compared to 26% for the non-acupuncture group. [Citation: PAULUS W, ET. AL., INFLUENCE OF ACUPUNCTURE ON THE PREGNANCY RATE IN PATIENTS WHO UNDERGO ASSISTED REPRODUCTION THERAPY. FERTILITY AND STERILITY, VOLUME 77, APRIL 2002, 721-724.]
The practical benefits of acupuncture for Patients undergoing In Vitro Fertilization include: Increased blood flow to the uterus and ovaries, improving the uterine lining, regulation of fertility hormones which may improve both quantity and quality of follicles, minimization of the side effects of medications and hormones given during the IVF process, reduction of both physical and emotional stress pre- and post- transfer, decreasing the chances of miscarriage and increasing the chance of implantation, increases the likelihood of full-term births, prevention of uterine contraction post-transfer.
Studies have shown that 30% of infertility is related to male factor problems among them: structural abnormalities, sperm production disorders, ejaculatory disturbances and immunologic disorders, scarring, varicocele, age and declining sperm quality, lifestyle choices, and hormonal imbalances.
For men, acupuncture can improve the volume, motility and morphology of sperm, and the male hormone levels which are involved in fertility.
Our program is designed to complement Western fertility modalities like In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) and Intra Uterine Insemination (IUI) to enhance the chances of conception.
Q. What qualities or certifications should an infertility patient look for when choosing an acupuncturist?
RL: While there are many different certifications, the certifying institutions are just that. Institutions that support themselves. Acupuncturists legally need to be licensed in their particular state. There is also the American Board of Oriental Reproductive Medicine that insures the individual has passed a written examination and understands reproductive medicine and how Chinese medicine can help rectify certain reproductive issues. I have a network of practitioners who are a part of my ongoing teaching called the CEFP (Continuing Excellence in Fertility Professionals). But I personally think the most important quality is the practitioner’s ability to connect with you; that you feel understood and cared for; that you can communicate well with each other; that your sessions make you feel like something was truly accomplished; and you are confident in their care of you. This is an individual thing – there are many “popular” and certified acupuncturists that I wouldn’t recommend. To me it does not matter how much knowledge they have stuffed in their heads or how many certifications they have on the wall. The most important thing in Chinese medicine, which goes back to the oldest Chinese medical text in existence, says that the practitioner must be “rooted in spirit.” They must have the ability to work much deeper than merely sticking needles in the appropriate points. Being rooted in spirit means that their inner life is devoted to their own healing first. They then are congruent with their own inner nature, and can convey that energetically to the ones they are working with. This quality is not taught through schools or exams, it is a quality of inner cultivation that I require practitioners to exhibit before they can work with me.
RB: Experience and specialization are the keys to finding a qualified practitioner. A podiatrist or dermatologist wouldn’t be your first choice when seeking Western medical help with infertility. A much better choice would be a gynecologist or reproductive endocrinologist because of their advanced training and experience in this very specialized field of medicine. Applying the same selection filter when looking for a Chinese Medicine practitioners only makes sense. Finding an acupuncturist with advance knowledge and training in reproductive medicine will save you time, money and heartache. A specialized practitioner will be able to increase your changes of conceiving naturally or via IVF using the latest research and techniques. The American Board of Oriental Reproductive Medicine sets the highest standards for specialization in the field and maintains an online list of practitioners with these advanced qualifications.
AW: It is important to verify an Acupuncturist’s credentials. He or she should have proper licensing, clinical experience in treating fertility patients, and knowledge of the various modalities of western infertility treatments, IVF, IUI etc…
Q. What advice would you give to a patient who is nervous about the needles?
RL: Don’t force yourself. Try it once if you want. If it seems to invasive, don’t do it anymore. I treat people all of the time without using needles. I use other modalities that cause a shift in their inner way of relating to themselves, their lives, and their fertility. One woman I treated many years ago had an FSH value over 100. She had been diagnosed with premature ovarian failure, and had been poked, prodded and invaded by reproductive medicine so much that her body would lock up when a needle would come into view. I never put a needle in her. I put them away when I saw the fear. Instead she got an infusion of hope which did not include a single needle. She went on Chinese herbs, but never received acupuncture. She conceived, naturally, within months. She didn’t need another tool, she needed the quality of someone rooted in spirit that could read her and understand the violence she had already been through.
RB: Always tell your practitioner if you are nervous about the treatment. He or she will be able to use very fine needles that you truly don’t feel at all! Most patients become so relaxed during the session that they drift off to dreamland.
AW: Most acupuncture treatments involve minimal or no pain. Sensations that may be felt during acupuncture include mild tingling, slight numbness, and warmth at the needle sites. Unlike hypodermic needles, acupuncture needles are very fine, nearly as thin as a strand of hair; they are designed to penetrate the skin with as little resistance as possible. Acupuncture needles are for single use only; they are pre-sterilized and are packaged individually in order to ensure their sterilization and safety.
Q. For how long and how often should infertility patients receive treatment?
RL: As long as they experience tangible effects of the treatments. These don’t all need to be physical or hormonal effects, but those should be a part of it. Some effects – especially deeply rooted psychoemotional disturbances may take years to work through. I worked with a woman who was diagnosed as being “too old” to conceive on her own, even with reproductive intervention. It took nearly three years before she conceived – naturally, after she began the retreat process and working with our practitioners.
RB: Every couple presents differently, however there are some general guidelines. When using acupuncture as an adjunct to IVF it is advisable to receive weekly treatment three months prior to starting fertility drugs to best prepare your body and to prime your ovaries. If there are any male factors, the partner should also receive treatments.
For couples trying to conceive naturally a thorough work-up is needed to assess the best treatment plan. Weekly sessions for 3-4 month allows time for the practitioner to make key improvements to the menstrual cycle, egg/sperm quality and/or lining.
AW: This depends on the body’s condition, when the woman comes in for her first visit. I would prefer a minimum of three months to see how the body responds to the treatments, and to allow for adjustments as needed. I also require that the partner come to see me so I can assess their overall condition, and deduce whether further treatment is necessary.
Studies have shown the benefits of optimizing a woman’s endocrine system at least 90 days prior to any transfer procedures. It is during this time that the follicles are developing and as a result, the most opportune time to improve the quality of the follicles versus only focusing on increasing the follicular quantity. The three month period is particularly important for women undergoing Assisted Reproductive Technology procedures.
That said, I have had women come to my clinic who have told me, my procedure is next week, although this is of course not ideal, we still do our best to help them in what little time remains.
As far as frequency of treatment goes, the more often a patient comes to see me the better. We understand that many people’s life situations may not allow this, so we do our best to work with each individual situation as it presents itself.
After a woman becomes pregnant, ideally frequent visits throughout the first trimester until the pregnancy is secure. Each treatment protocol is tailored to each woman’s personal situation, as well as their unique constitutional patterns.
Upon the initial visit, we carefully formulate the best treatments for each individual. Each woman responds to treatment differently, so what I am describing is a general guideline.
We would also prefer, that we see the entire pregnancy through to its conclusion, and that the woman return as soon as possible after the birth to detoxify their bodies and aid in their recuperation from childbirth.
Q. What about readers who live in an area where there are no Chinese medicine practitioners? What kind of self-care can they implement at home?
RL: This is one of the reasons we have instituted the online retreat process, and distance consultations with a TCM practitioner. Treatment includes dietary and nutritional therapy, herbal therapy, qi gong exercises, and meditations. In my view this is more effective than acupuncture alone. In China, acupuncture is not the standard of care in treating reproductive and gynecological disorders. Chinese herbs are.
RB: Many fertility specialists offer distance-consultation which can be helpful in assessing the best home treatment plan. Such a plan should naturally include fertility-friendly nutrition and conception-appropriate exercise. Herbal supplementation can be very helpful but should always be prescribed by a licensed practitioner. Abdominal massage, yoga and meditation are all beneficial forms of self-care. The Infertility Cure by Randine Lewis contains sound advice on nutrition and self massage, and is a great place to learn more about how acupuncture and Chinese medicine benefits fertility.
AW: My book Fertility Wisdom is a wonderful tool for women in such a situation. We have had many women from around the world, call, email, and visit our office after beginning take care of their own personal fertility journey’s on their own using my book as a guideline. Some were successful on their own; others were so excited about what they read they wanted to experience it in person.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about acupuncture and this new “ask-an-expert” format. Please share in the comments below!
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