Acupuncture is an ancient holistic medicine that creates balance in the body through gentle treatment with minimal side effects. In vitro fertilization (IVF) and other Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART) are ultramodern medical techniques that manipulate conception with hormonal medications and surgical procedures.
One is aggressive and invasive, but very precise; while the other is holistic, calming, and nourishing. Much like Yin and Yang, these medicines are built on very very different foundations, but nonetheless compliment each other quite well. In fact, many Reproductive Endocrinologist (aka, fertility doctors) make room in their busy clinics for acupuncturists like me to treat patients at key points during the IVF process.
Why do IVF and acupuncture work so well together? First off, Chinese medicine's holistic approach helps to reduce the harsh side effects from aggressive hormonal medications and fertility treatments, such as:
- Mood swings & irritability
- Digestive upset (constipation, diarrhea, nausea, heartburn)
- Headaches & migraines
- Bloating & swelling
- Post-surgical pain
- Allergic reactions
Acupuncture is also able to nourish your system as a whole, improving your overall health and fertility, therefore improving how you respond to IVF treatment. Acupuncture has been shown to be effective for:
- Balancing hormones and improving ovarian function
- Improving egg, sperm and embryo quality
- Inducing ovulation in PCOS patients
- Improving circulation to the uterus and ovaries
- Strengthening the immune system
- Reducing inflammation
As a Holistic Fertility Coach who has walked down the IVF path with hundreds of women, I can tell you there's yet another element as to why acupuncture and IVF work so well together. Women experiencing infertility have been studied and it's been found they are just as stressed as patients undergoing cancer treatment. I've found that's largely due to feeling isolated and alone through such a physically and emotionally trying time. When I work with my patients undergoing IVF, we almost always address elements of stress, anxiety, and/or depression that come up during the process.
How often is it recommended?
It depends on your unique diagnosis and which part of the IVF process you start acupuncture treatment during, but the general rule of thumb is:
- Women prepping for an IVF cycle should get acupuncture twice per week for 4-6 weeks prior to starting IVF medications.
- I recommend acupuncture 1-2 days after egg retrieval to help detox the system from anesthesia and hormonal medications, especially if preparing for a fresh embryo transfer, which takes place just days after the retrieval.
- Ideally acupuncture should be performed the day of embryo transfer, both before and after. To time these treatments properly an acupuncturist must be on site at your fertility clinic, which I routinely do for my patients.
- Acupuncture to encourage implantation is usually performed 7-10 days after ovulation. For IVF using day 3 fresh embryos the implantation treatment should be timed 4-7 days after embryo transfer. For IVF using day 5 frozen embryos the implantation treatment should be timed 2-5 days after the embryo transfer.
- After positive pregnancy test, depending on the patient and their history of infertility and/or miscarriage, I recommend acupuncture once or twice per week in the first trimester.
- Some patients who have not responded well to IVF previously (for example, some women don't produce enough eggs, don't have enough eggs fertilize and/or make it to embryo stage, or they get pregnant but then miscarry) choose to take a break from IVF for a few months in order to boost their fertility and hopefully respond better during their next round. For these patients I usually recommend acupuncture treatment twice per week for at least 3 months before undergoing IVF again.
Acupuncture more than doubles pregnancy rate for patients undergoing IVF with ICSI
ICSI stands for intracytoplasmic sperm injection. It's a technique that is regularly used during IVF where sperm is injected into a fertile egg with a thin needle. A study by Stefan Dieterle, M.D. in Fertility and Sterility in April 2006 studied 225 women undergoing embryo transfer to observe the effect of real acupuncture treatment vs. sham acupuncture. The group that underwent real acupuncture had an ongoing pregnancy rate of 28.4% while the sham acupuncture group had a rate of only 13.8%.
Acupuncture before and after embryo transfer improves pregnancy rates by 60%
The Paulus protocol was used on 2 groups of randomly selected women undergoing IVF with good quality embryos, the study was published in Fertility and Sterility in April 2002. One group got acupuncture before and after their embryos transfers and ended up with a pregnancy rate of 42.5%, the other group had no acupuncture and a pregnancy rate of 26.3%! This is the protocol I base my treatments on when I attend my patient's embryo transfers.
Acupuncture improves pregnancy rates by 52% and lowers perceived stress
A study published in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice in August of 2010 used the Paulus protocol above to study pregnancy rates and perceived stress in two groups of women undergoing embryo transfer, one group got acupuncture treatment and the other didn't. Pregnancy rate in the acupuncture group was 64.7%, whereas the rate was 42.5% in the non-acupuncture group.
Perceived stress level was lower in the acupuncture group, and lower stress levels were positively associated with higher pregnancy rates, despite which group the women were in.
Acupuncture improves circulation in uterine arteries
The Stener-Victorin protocol, published in Human Reproduction in June 1996 showed that women with infertility who underwent electro acupuncture twice a week for 4 weeks had much less "blood flow impedance" in their uterine arteries after treatment.