Many of us find ourselves living with a body that isn't quite clockwork-perfect. When as many as one in 10 women have a condition that leads to cyst-filled ovaries and possible infertility, there's still plenty of room for science to intervene and give women the freedom to make better choices about parenthood and general health.
But when it comes to polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal condition that causes ovarian problems that often result in fertility issues, many have sought alternative treatments, like acupuncture, that had some promise as good complementary medicine for treating PCOS and the infertility struggles that go with it.
"Had" being the important qualifier.
A randomized study published in 2017, using 1,000 Chinese women with PCOS, didn't find that acupuncture increased the number of live births. The blinded study put the women into four groups:
- One received the fertility medication clomiphene plus active acupuncture. (Researchers defined active acupuncture as deep needle insertion with both manual and electrical stimulation.)
- One received clomiphene and control acupuncture. (Researchers defined control acupuncture as superficial needle insertion with no manual stimulation and placebo electricity.)
- One received active acupuncture and a placebo medication.
- One received control acupuncture and a placebo medication.
Among the study population, 21.8 percent of women with active acupuncture had a live birth compared to 22.4 percent of women receiving control acupuncture. Not a significant difference. However, the live birth rate was much higher for all the women who took the clomiphene: 28.7 percent of women had a live birth if taking the medication, as opposed to 15.4 percent for those on a placebo med. Acupuncture, used on its own or in combination with the medication, simply was not an effective fertility treatment.
Dr. Richard Legro, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology and public health sciences at Penn State University College of Medicine, is a co-author of the study. He says in an email that previous studies about acupuncture and PCOS have had the following limitations: "small sample size, lack of randomization, no standardized protocol [and] no blinding of treatments." In other words, this study was the first to look broadly and systematically at the benefits of acupuncture of PCOS. And the results were surprising.
"We designed this trial to document a benefit of acupuncture, alone or in combination with the drug clomiphene," Legro says, as previous smaller studies had shown promise. But the results said otherwise, although Legro does acknowledge that some critics will still not be appeased if they disagree with the methods of acupuncture used.
"Acupuncture experts want it both ways," he says. "They want to say acupuncture works, but without a standardized protocol, it is not reproducible. These 'experts' criticize every study that is done which show no benefit, because acupuncture wasn't done the way they do it (with or without supplements) and therefore is invalid."
But the researchers maintain they were diligent about methodology. "To control for the confounding of varied techniques we utilized a single active acupuncture protocol and a single control acupuncture protocol," Legro says. "We followed accepted guidelines [called STRICTA] for conducting randomized controlled studies of acupuncture."
So don't get out your wallet for acupuncture if you have PCOS and are looking to increase your chances for a birth. Of course, not all hope is lost — it's heartening to see that clomiphene produced a statistically important result that increased the odds of a live childbirth for those women with PCOS.