Acupuncture: if you’ve never tried it, you may be totally freaked out by the prospect of having even more needles pricked into you. But more and more fertility specialists are recognizing the benefits of acupuncture and recommending it to their patients to ease their fertility headaches (literally).
You might be wondering what the big deal is and thinking you’ll be turned into a porcupine, or maybe you’re already super excited to try it and just want to know what to expect. We talked to some experts to get the info you’ll need to decide if you’re ready to go for it.
Square one: what is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is a medical treatment based on the disciplines of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). It’s based on the theory that there are channels that flow through the body, kind of like the circulatory system. When someone goes in for an acupuncture treatment, the practitioner inserts teeny-tiny, stainless steel, disposable needles into the patient’s body at specific points along those channels.
Typically, the needles are placed at 8-12 different points, but sometimes up to twenty. Different points are used depending on any symptoms you might be experiencing—back aches, anxiety, acid reflux…you name it!—and practitioners view the body as totally interconnected.
What does acupuncture do?
Acupuncture is pretty much all about helping your body live its best life. It aims to regulate each of your systems to get them to work optimally and in harmony with each other. For example, a 2002 Fertility and Sterility study published by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) indicated that receiving regular acupuncture treatments can regulate patients’ endocrine systems (where sex, mood and sleep hormones are manufactured).
An important note about stress: regulating your endocrine system can dial down your stress response. If you’re going through fertility treatments, odds are you’re super stressed about it, and any moment of zen is probably super appreciated. But although fertility struggles can definitely cause stress, a 2018 Social Science & Medicine study shows the reverse is not necessarily true. And while it’s tough to control the root cause of your stress itself (does the phrase, “just relax” makes your blood boil, or is it just us?), we can work to reduce the results of stress, like anxiety and insomnia. And by getting your endocrine system to chill out, acupuncture can be a big help.
It has other benefits too. According to Adele Reising, licensed acupuncturist and nationally certified herbalist, “acupuncture just sort of gets everything working together better.” For example, if you’re doing a frozen transfer and you want to make sure the lining of the uterus is really healthy, acupuncture can support that.
Yeah, but does it work?
- A recent study followed 160 women through the days of their IVF transfers and gave acupuncture to half of them before and after the transfer. Of the 80 women who got acupuncture, 42.5% got pregnant, as opposed to only 26.3% of the 80 women who didn’t receive acupuncture.
- An earlier British Medical Journal meta-analysis of 7 studies on patients undergoing IVF indicated that acupuncture given to patients undergoing IVF led to a 91% increase in live birth rates compared with control groups.
Reising actually says it works even better if you go in a couple months before IVF or other fertility treatment or medication. But maybe you’re not yet seeing a fertility specialist. Maybe you’re struggling with recurrent miscarriages or just not conceiving even though everything seems normal. Your periods might seem normal, but you’re still not getting pregnant. Reising notes that for those patients, their hormones may be off by just a little bit, and acupuncture aims to provide further hormonal alignment.
However, there are natural limits to acupuncture’s perceived magic. For example, if there is a structural issue, like a blockage in the fallopian tube, acupuncture can’t remove that. Similarly for men, if the vas deferens (the connection between the testicle and the urethra) is missing, a surgical procedure would be necessary to remove that barrier to conception. What acupuncture may be able to do in cases like these is improve the sperm quality or strengthen the uterine lining in order to hopefully make the outcome of Western fertility treatments more successful.
So ideally, the acupuncturist and your fertility doctors work together. Dr. Sheeva Talebian, a reproductive endocrinologist at Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine New York (CCRM NY) says she recommends acupuncture “all the time. It’s a completely different practice and philosophy and I find it helpful to get a different approach. The more eyes studying a specific patient, the better.”
Ok, let’s say I want to try it. What should I expect at my first acupuncture treatment?
The first thing that will happen is the acupuncturist will ask you tons of questions about your medical history, just like any Western doctor would. Then they’ll take your pulse and look at your tongue (seriously).
Here’s what they’re looking for: patterns of disharmony, which might be getting missed or ignored by your regular doctor, because they don’t show up as illness. Let’s say you have trouble sleeping and you feel anxious and your skin is dry and your hair is falling out. In Chinese medicine, that grouping of symptoms together indicates a “blood deficiency.” It’s not severe enough for your main doctor to call it anemia, but there are enough symptoms to show some imbalance is going on in your body. With that information, the practitioner can determine where to insert the needles to best address your individual needs.
When it’s time for the treatment you’ll usually be asked to undress and put on a gown or cover yourself with a sheet and lay down or face up on a table, like you’re getting ready for a massage or Pap smear (but we promise: no stirrups!). The practitioner will then reenter the room and begin “tapping” the needles into the points they’ve selected specifically for your needs.
The insertion of the needles doesn’t usually hurt—maybe just a pinch—but it shouldn’t stay painful, because the needles are as fine as a strand of hair. If you’re not comfortable, just let your practitioner know and he/she will make an adjustment. Comfort is key!
Once all the needles are in, the acupuncturist will leave the room (ideally turning on some music or relaxing white noise) and you’ll rest there on the table for 20-30 minutes. You may fall asleep or you may need a couple of sessions to get used to it, but afterwards, you should feel like you got a really good night’s rest.
When will I start seeing results from acupuncture?
We know, you wanted results like, yesterday, but Reising says it can take about 3 months of weekly treatments for acupuncture to completely regulate the hormonal cycle, for both men and women. If you’re as impatient as we are, try to think of it this way: it takes about 100 days for red blood cells or sperm to mature, Reising tells us. So if you want acupuncture to make deep changes in your body’s functioning, you’ll want to give it the time it naturally needs.