Infertility is a relatively common condition in the United States, seen in nearly 10 percent of men and women of reproductive age [source: EMedicineHealth]. Doctors can diagnose it after a couple is unable to become pregnant after a full year of unprotected sex. The plethora of treatments for infertile couples includes in vitro fertilization, fertility drugs, hormone therapy, behavioral changes (losing weight or quitting smoking) and surgical repair of fallopian tubes or sperm ducts.
The term complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM, describes any medical practice or product that is not included in the Western world's definition of standard care. Standard care is medicine practiced by doctors, nurses, physical therapists and physician assistants -- it includes the use of modern surgical procedures and prescription drugs.
"Alternative medicine" refers to medical treatments used in place of standard care. "Complementary medicine" is nonstandard treatment that's used along with standard care.
Acupuncture and Infertility
Acupuncture is an ancient medical technique that uses stimulation of pressure points in an effort to rebalance a patient's body to a state of health. The most common stimulation method is the insertion of needles into specific sites in the skin. The practice has been popular in China and other Asian countries for more than 3,000 years -- it's used to treat chronic pain, nicotine addiction, thyroid problems, migraines and hundreds of other ailments [source: Pregnancy-Info]. Asian cultures have been using acupuncture as an infertility treatment for thousands of years. Several recent studies have shown the benefits of using acupuncture as, or in conjunction with, an infertility treatment.
The basic concept of acupuncture involves an energy force, or chi, that travels through the body on meridians (channels). The chi affects every aspect of life -- emotional, spiritual, physical and mental. Yin and yang, the opposing forces that exist in the chi, must be balanced in a healthy body. In the event of an imbalance that causes health problems, acupuncturists place needles in specific points on the meridians to unblock the passage of chi. Acupuncture points vary according to the ailment.
Traditional Chinese medicine identifies several patterns of disharmony with infertility in women, including lack of energy, unregulated menstrual cycles and excessive stress. So, acupuncture for infertile women targets the meridians for the kidneys, heart and liver. The kidneys are thought to provide the body with energy, so treating this area would give a woman more energy to offer to a baby. Treatment of the liver meridian regulates menstrual flow and reduces the psychological effects of PMS, depression and anxiety. Finally, the heart system is believed to be related to a person's emotional state, so acupuncture that targets this meridian helps to reduce stress and allows relaxation and health throughout the conception process. When all three areas are treated, egg quality will improve, the uterine lining will be healthier, menstrual cycles will regulate and hormones will balance throughout the body.
According to Western medicine, the most common causes are polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), ovulation irregularities and hormone imbalance. PCOS happens when a woman's ovaries produce high levels of male hormones. This creates an imbalance in all of her hormones, which can impede egg production. Cysts can then form in the ovaries, causing a decrease or stoppage in ovulation. Acupuncture may also help rebalance the body's systems and increase blood flow to the reproductive organs, which restores ovarian function.
An added bonus of increased blood flow to the reproductive organs involves the endometrium, which is the mucus membrane in the uterus. The increased blood flow may make this membrane thicker, which makes the implantation of a fertilized egg in the membrane more likely. In addition, rebalancing the body's forces can help regulate thyroid function and reduce weight, two factors associated with infertility. But when the woman's overall health affects fertility (if she has a thyroid condition, for example), the therapist will use different meridians.
Timing and consistency are also important. Successful treatment usually involves one to two sessions a week for three to six months. A woman's hormones can be adjusted during each week of her menstrual cycle, so therapists recommend a minimum of 12 treatments (or three consecutive cycles). Couples can continue to attempt pregnancy during treatment, but acupuncturists generally believe that body balancing has to happen first. Timing is also an important factor for women who are using acupuncture along with in vitro fertilizaton. Studies have shown that the ideal time for treatment is during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle (the period after ovulation) and the day of embryo transfer.
On the next page we'll learn about how acupuncture and in vitro fertilization can work together.
Acupuncture and In Vitro Fertilization
If structural issues are the cause of infertility, acupuncture alone is generally not effective. (Structural problems include scar tissue in a woman's uterus or abdomen as a result of previous surgeries, and obstructed sperm ducts in men.) However, there is evidence that acupuncture works well in conjunction with medical treatments like in vitro fertilization (IVF).
Patients who suffer from damaged fallopian tubes or restricted sperm ducts often turn to IVF. Some studies have shown that the use of acupuncture along with IVF can increase pregnancy rates and decrease miscarriage rates. A 2006 study showed that women who received acupuncture immediately before and after embryo transfer had a pregnancy rate of 39 percent. Ninety-seven percent of these women carried their babies to term. Of the women who didn't receive acupuncture, 26 percent got pregnant and 96 percent of them carried to term [source: Dieterle et al].
Another study found that three acupuncture sessions both before and after embryo transfer improved fertilization rates. One study of 258 women found a 10 percent increase in pregnancy rate when they used acupuncture in conjunction with IVF [source: New Trends in Infertility]. Even more impressive results were obtained in a study in which pregnancy rates hit more than 42 percent with acupuncture treatments during fertility treatments. This is nearly twice as much as the group of women who did not receive acupuncture, in which only 26 percent got pregnant [source: Simon].
Researchers have conducted several studies in an attempt to scientifically explain the benefits of acupuncture. One concluded that acupuncture may improve IVF success rates in four possible ways.
- Neuroendocrinological modulations. Acupuncture could change the way a woman's nervous system and endocrine glands interact. This is important because the endocrine glands are in charge of hormone secretion, and infertility studies have proven that hormone imbalances can be a cause of infertility.
- Increased blood flow to the uterus and ovaries
- Cytokine balance. Acupuncture could help balance the body's level of cytokines, which are involved in immunity. Imbalance of certain cytokines has been attributed to infertility, including infertility due to endometriosis.
- Reduction of stress, anxiety and depression. The elimination of one or all of these has been shown to increase the chances of pregnancy.
However, a study presented in August 2007 to the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) found that the use of complementary medicine with IVF actually decreased a woman's chance for pregnancy. The study included several different types of alternative therapy, so it isn't clear if one specific therapy could have a negative impact on fertility or if a combination is to blame. In this study, 50 percent of the women used herbal medicine, 19 percent used acupuncture and 40 percent used a combination of alternative therapies. The study concluded that the pregnancy rate for women using complementary therapy was 45 percent. Sixty-six percent of women using IVF without complementary medicine got pregnant [source: ESHRE].
In the next section, we'll discuss how hypnosis may help boost fertility.
Hypnosis and Infertility
There haven't been many studies on hypnosis as a successful treatment for infertility. However, more and more are coming out, some with astonishing results. One even suggests that hypnosis can double a woman's chance of getting pregnant when used in conjunction with in vitro fertilization (IVF) [source: Fertility and Sterility Journal]. Like acupuncture, hypnosis has a long history -- and it's actually been included in Western medicine since the late 1800s, when doctors used it to help sedate surgery patients.
The process of hypnosis usually begins when a trained therapist asks a person to focus his or her attention on a specific point or idea. This results in a sleep- or trancelike state in which the patient is more receptive to suggestions. When hypnosis is used to treat diseases, addictions or symptoms, we call it hypnotherapy.
Hypnotherapy is believed to be a successful treatment for a variety of ailments, including anxiety, insomnia, pain management and stress-related illnesses. Some women use it to relieve labor pains. The success of hypnotherapy is thought to be caused by many of the same factors seen in acupuncture. Patients undergoing hypnotherapy may be able to lower their blood pressure or increase their immune-system function, both of which would be beneficial for a woman trying to get pregnant. Women may also be able to balance their hormone levels, which, as we discussed, could increase chances of pregnancy. Another benefit includes reducing unhealthy lifestyle patterns -- like smoking and obesity -- that could decrease fertility in both men and women.
However, in the case of infertility, hypnotherapy's effect on anxiety and stress may be the most important factor. As we saw above, hypnotherapy does seem to be effective on its own, but many studies focus on it in conjunction with the stress of IVF.
In 2006, a team from Soroka University in Israel followed women who were undergoing IVF. Some of the women were hypnotized during the embryo transfer stage, a stressful process that can be impeded by uterine contractions. The study showed that 28 percent of the hypnotized women got pregnant, as compared to 14 percent of the women who didn't receive hypnotherapy. The researchers attributed the success of hypnotherapy to relaxation, which may have reduced uterine contractions [source: Our Jerusalem].
But critics aren't convinced. Many of them point to research flaws that could negate the findings. But the study has made an impact by encouraging further studies on the effects of hypnotherapy on infertility.
To learn more about acupuncture, hypnosis and their use in infertility treatment, look over the links on the next page.
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More Great Links
- Acupuncture.com. http://www.acupuncture.com/newsletters/m_nov06/enhance_fertility.htm
- American Pregnancy Association: Treating Infertility Using Acupuncture. http://www.americanpregnancy.org/infertility/acupuncture.htm
- Anderson BJ, Haimovici F, Ginsburg ES, Schust DJ, Wayne PM. "In vitro fertilization and acupuncture: clinical efficacy and mechanistic basis." Alternative Therapy Health Med 13 (3): 38-48, 2007. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17515023?dopt=Abstract
- BBC News: Hypnosis 'doubles IVF success'. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/3849727.stm
- Dieterle S, Ying G, Hatzmann W, Neuer A. "Effect of acupuncture on the outcome of in vitro fertilization and intracytoplasmic sperm injection: a randomized, prospective, controlled clinical study." Fertility and Sterility. 85 (5): 1347-51, 2006.
- ESHRE: Complementary therapy for infertile women may reduce chances of pregnancy. http://www.eshre.com/emc.asp?pageId=944
- Impact of hypnosis during embryo transfer on the outcome of in vitro fertilization-embryo transfer: a case-control study.' Fertility and Sterility Journal. May 2006; 8 (5):14040-8.
- Israeli study proves hypnosis can double IVF success rate. http://www.ourjerusalem.com/news/story/news20040824.html
- Medline Plus: Complementary and Alternative Medicine. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/complementaryandalternativemedicine.html
- Role of Cytokines in Endometriosis-Associated Infertility. http://content.karger.com/ProdukteDB/produkte.asp?Aktion=ShowPDF&ProduktNr=223845&Ausgabe=227233&ArtikelNr=49420
- Simon, Harvey, MD. "Infertility in Women." Nidus Information Services, 2007.
- WebMD: New Trends in Infertility. http://www.webmd.com/infertility-and-reproduction/features/new-trends-in-infertility-treatment?page=3
- Yin and Yang.com: Female Infertility Treatment Theories. http://www.yinyanghouse.com/treatments/tcmtheory_infertility_treatment