1 in 6 couples in the UK are affected by fertility issues according to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.
The typical identifiable causes of infertility include:
– Ovulatory disorders in 27% of couples
– Tubal damage in 14% of couples
– Low sperm count or low sperm quality in 19% of couples.
However, for a huge 30% of couples, the cause of infertility remains unexplained(1).
The difficulties couples encounter when facing fertility problems can unsurprisingly, lead to a great deal of emotional stress. Research suggests this may be a significant factor influencing further decreased chances of conception(2).
Acupuncture is proving to be a popular treatment choice for infertility(3) and it’s benefits are possibly due to it’s ability to help people deal with these stresses:
The Acupuncture Approach
A traditional Chinese medicine consultation and detailed diagnosis may point towards one or more root causes. In essence, these can relate to a disruption in the flow of Qi (see the Qi and Meridian Section) producing a significant disharmony of body, mind and spirit.
In Chinese medicine theory, all of these need to be in subtle union for life to be created and sustained throughout the pregnancy and in order to facilitate this, a completely tailored treatment plan is formulated and adjusted at each treatment to restore balance and help you to function optimally.
Acupuncture is safe for use with or without assisted conception support such as IVF – the only difference, is that treatment is coordinated and adjusted at different times of the IVF cycle in order to support the process at critical stages and to deal with the common stresses that arise as part of the journey.
Randomised trials in China have demonstrated significantly better pregnancy rates for acupuncture than medication(4), however, these studies may not be of a high quality and unfortunately, (at the time of writing this article), in the West, clinical trials on acupuncture for natural fertility (i.e. not as an adjunct to assisted conception) are almost non-existent, though there is a small amount of positive evidence(5).
The good news…..
Research has at least, established plausible mechanisms to explain how acupuncture may benefit fertility:
Regulating fertility hormones – stress and other factors can disrupt the function of the hypothalamic pituitary-ovarian axis (HPOA), causing hormonal imbalances that can negatively impact fertility. Acupuncture has been shown to affect hormone levels by promoting the release of beta-endorphin in the brain, which affects the release of gonadotrophin releasing hormone by the hypothalamus, follicle stimulating hormone from the pituitary gland, and oestrogen and progesterone levels from the ovary(6).
Further details of these processes are emerging, for example mRNA expression of hormones, growth factors and other neuropeptides(7).
Increasing blood flow to the ovaries and uterus – stress also stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which causes constriction of ovarian arteries. Acupuncture inhibits this sympathetic activity, improving blood flow to the ovaries(8), enhancing the environment in which ovarian follicles develop. It also increases blood flow to the uterus(9), improving the thickness of the endometrial lining and increasing the chances of embryo implantation.
Counteracting the effects of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) – PCOS is one of the most common causes of female infertility. By reducing sympathetic nerve activity and balancing hormone levels, acupuncture has been shown to reduce the number of ovarian cysts, stimulate ovulation, enhance blastocyst implantation and regulate the menstrual cycle in women with PCOS(10). It may also help to control secondary effects of PCOS such as obesity and anorexia(11).
1. NCCWCH, 2004.
2. Eugster & Vingerhoets, 1999.
3. Smith 2010
4. Yang 2005, Chen 2007, Song 2008
5. Gerhard 1992, Stener-Victorin 2000, 2008, 2010.
6. Ng 2008, Huang 2008, Lim 2010, Stener-Victorin 2010.
7. He 2009
8. Stener-Victorin 2006, Lim 2010
9. Stener-Victorin 1996, Huang 2008
10. Stener-Victorin 2000, 2008, 2009, Zhang 2009
11. Lim 2010.
Please note, the full links for the research listed above, can be viewed with their relevant conclusions in the British Acupuncture Council Research Fact Sheet, which you can find here.
If you are interested in what patients have to say about their experience of acupuncture, please read the comments on the Patient Experiences page.
If you have any questions about a condition you have and whether acupuncture may help, please contact Lee on 01837 214888 (for acupuncture in North Tawton) or 01392 927299 (for acupuncture in Exeter).