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.