Can Acupuncture Help With Infertility?
Many people use acupuncture to help treat infertility, and its benefits are touted throughout mainstream media. Celebrities crediting acupuncture for their successful pregnancies have appeared on social networks and in the headlines of print publications.
But can acupuncture treatments actually help treat infertility?
What is infertility?
Infertility, the inability to naturally conceive after a year of trying, is not an uncommon condition. In the United States, roughly 1 in 5 married women aged 15-49 (19 percent) are unable to become pregnant after a year of trying, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There are many factors involved in fertility. Common conditions that can influence infertility in women include the following:
- Problems with ovulation
- Hormone imbalances
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- Damage to the fallopian tubes
Age, smoking and alcohol use may also affect fertility. Sometimes, the cause of infertility is unknown.
Many types of fertility treatments can help increase a person's chance of conception. From assisted reproductive technology (ART), such as in vitro fertilization (IVF) or intrauterine insemination (IUI), people have many options.
But there is one other option some people claim is reliable: acupuncture. People receiving acupuncture claim it can do far more than help relieve stress and anxiety—it can increase your chance of pregnancy.
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practice. Practitioners believe the body holds 2,000 acupuncture pressure points connected by pathways to create an energy flow responsible for bodily health, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
When these pathways become interrupted, acupuncture is thought to restore the flow of these energy points—improving health and well-being in the process. This technique has been used for more than 2,500 years.
Trained and certified acupuncturists know the right pressure points and can avoid accidental injuries, such as infection or organ punctures.
What does science say about acupuncture?
This traditional technique still requires further research. However, existing research has provided insight into why certain techniques appear to provide relief for specific conditions.
Researchers believe they discovered why acupuncture on a hindlimb region triggers an anti-inflammatory response in mice, according to a 2021 study.
In humans, an analysis of 20 different studies about acupuncture revealed more beneficial results than the placebo. Its effects were similar to those of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NIH) reported.
The costs of acupuncture for lower back pain is covered by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).
But how does acupuncture help fertility? Are there acupuncture points for fertility?
How could acupuncture help with infertility?
Acupuncture is not a stand-in for a medical procedure, but some people believe its benefits can be far-reaching. Why? They say acupuncture points help target emotional stressors.
Infertility can be stressful emotionally, financially and physically. Acupuncture may help reduce stress, improve fertility health and restore balance to the reproductive system, said Himali Maniar, M.B.B.S., an OB-GYN and fertility expert at Nisha Women's Hospital & IVF Centre in Mumbai, India.
Some people feel a sense of calm after treatment. Acupuncture elicits a deep relaxation response, Moy said. After a session, people are often advised to wait several minutes before driving home due to lingering feelings of intense relaxation.
Researchers looked at 21 studies across four countries and found conflicting evidence on the efficacy of acupuncture for women with infertility in a 2021 report.
However, another review of the literature revealed more promising results. Women who tried acupuncture experienced a boost in sex hormones, such as estrogen, especially estradiol, progesterone and other hormones, the 2018 study indicated.
Women who conceived after receiving the multiphasic fertility acupuncture protocol did so in half the time compared to women who only made lifestyle changes, a 2016 study shared.
"Acupuncture is one branch of Chinese medicine, which takes a holistic approach to fertility, addressing not just the physical aspects of fertility, but also the emotional and mental aspects. It aims to restore balance to the body, mind and spirit to improve overall health and fertility," said Tsao-Lin Moy, L.Ac., MSOM, Chinese medicine practitioner and fertility specialist.
Acupuncture inserts hair-thin needles into the body at certain points.
"These points are thought to activate the body's self-healing mechanisms, which help regulate hormones, increase blood flow to the reproductive organs and promote relaxation," Maniar said.
It's important to look after your general sexual reproductive health. Acupuncture could be helpful in that respect, too.
"Acupuncture improves blood flow to the uterus and to the ovaries, helping to maintain a healthy menstrual cycle, increasing the chances of ovulation and improving the quality of the uterine lining," Moy said.
Can acupuncture help with endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)?
Infertility is often a complex issue influenced by multiple factors. Some research suggests that acupuncture could help with fertility by positively impacting some of the underlying conditions that lead to infertility.
"Hormonal imbalances are one of the main health conditions that contribute to infertility. Conditions like PCOS affect 6-12 percent of U.S. women as well as endometriosis, causing pain, irregular bleeding and lack of ovulation. Because acupuncture supports the nervous system, regulates sleep and reproductive hormones, it can also help to balance hormones," Moy said.
Does this traditional Chinese medicine help restore menstrual health in women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)? Menstrual frequency can be a significant factor for those trying to become pregnant, but more research is needed to determine if there is a link between acupuncture and better menstrual health in people with PCOS.
For women with endometriosis, one review found that acupuncture could reduce endometriosis pain. With underlying conditions, acupuncture could help alongside traditional medical treatment.
"Generally speaking, if there is an underlying medical condition like endometriosis or PCOS, acupuncture can be used in conjunction with other treatments to maximize success rates," Maniar said.
How does acupuncture help IVF?
This technique may be used in tandem with traditional infertility treatments.
"Acupuncture is considered extremely safe and can be used alongside conventional medical treatments for fertility, such as in vitro fertilization, to improve the chances of success and support overall health and well-being," Moy said.
In a meta-analysis of 12 randomized controlled trials, acupuncture increased the likelihood of clinical pregnancy and live birth rates in women undergoing IVF treatment, Moy pointed out in the 2012 study.
Acupuncture 25 minutes before an embryo transfer significantly increased IVF outcomes, a 2020 study indicated.
Is acupuncture worth trying to help infertility issues?
For its potentially relaxing benefits alone, acupuncture may be worth trying. Although more research is needed to determine acupuncture's impact on fertility, some evidence does indicate it can be helpful in addition to assisted reproductive technology (ART) treatments, like IVF.
Acupuncture also may help improve or ease health conditions associated with infertility, such as PCOS or endometriosis. But acupuncture is not for everyone.
Who shouldn't try acupuncture for fertility?
Although acupuncture is a holistic modality, those with active skin infections or a compromised immune system should use caution with acupuncture, Moy said.
"Additionally, those who have had surgery in their abdominal region may not be suitable candidates for acupuncture due to the risk of infection at the needle insertion points and possible organ damage," Maniar said.
Some people experience minor pain where the needles puncture the skin, which can result in bruising or soreness. Others experience drowsiness after acupuncture, but generally, acupuncture has a low risk of side effects.
When should you consider trying acupuncture for fertility?
If you're hoping to conceive, the best time to begin acupuncture may be now. Moy recommended that for those who wish to become pregnant, acupuncture for at least six months could be helpful.
"It is better to be proactive about health and fertility before it becomes a struggle," Moy said.
Lifestyle changes can also help promote fertility in conjunction with acupuncture, Moy said.
"Exercising, losing weight, mindfulness and dietary adjustments over time are easier to be consistent with and contribute to overall health and fertility," Moy said.
How do you find an acupuncturist who can help with your infertility?
If you seek acupuncture for infertility-related issues, Moy suggests choosing a licensed acupuncturist with experience in women's health and fertility can be helpful. Try a Google search to locate an office near you.
Education level, years of experience and skill in an acupuncturist are important criteria in a practitioner, Moy said.
The bottom line
Acupuncture has been shown to help relieve chronic pain and ease menstrual issues. While more data is needed on the efficacy of acupuncture for infertility, there is no research that suggests it could be harmful to fertility.
"With the right combination of treatments, acupuncture could potentially make all the difference for someone struggling with infertility," Maniar said.
Speak with your doctor to learn if acupuncture is a good fit for you and how to incorporate this technique into your fertility treatment plan.