Acupuncture - and other Chinese medicine therapies, such as herbal medicine, moxibustion, massage, cupping, and so on - can be incredibly helpful for fertility issues. Gynecology is one of the most popular sub-specialties of Chinese medicine in China. Outside of China, women are only just beginning to realize the possibilities. Although some people may find it difficult to understand how needles - or herbs, moxa, etc. - could treat infertility, I think most people can easily appreciate the principles behind the treatments. Chinese medicine practitioners consider fertility issues to be closely connected with every aspect of a patient’s health, from diet to sleep to the menstrual cycle itself. According to Chinese medicine theory, a woman will have the best chances of getting pregnant when all aspects of her health are in balance.
Understanding the Principles Behind Acupuncture for Fertility
There is growing scientific evidence in support of the benefits behind acupuncture therapies for fertility. What is more important to understand are the principles behind the treatments. The most important principle for treating infertility in Chinese medicine is to regulate the menstrual cycle. When we try to “translate” these therapies back into the language of modern medicine, we may find that acupuncture is doing different things for different patients.
It is not uncommon for some people to claim that acupuncture works by “balancing the hormones,” but what is really important is all the different ways that an acupuncturist can achieve that result. For example, a patient with a luteal phase defect, who produces insufficient progesterone to maintain a pregnancy, will be treated very differently than a woman who is anovulatory (not ovulating). Moreover, an acupuncturist does not think in terms of hormones, which is a Western medicine concept. For example, according to Chinese medicine, some women may have fertility issues because of digestive issues and poor dietary choices. In this case, acupuncture may be regulating hormonal imbalances but these changes are achieved by addressing the patient’s gastrointestinal complaints. Because of the innate holism of Chinese medicine, it is not always easy to give a single scientific explanation because the treatments themselves are designed to address a wide range of issues.
A Closer Look at the Specific Fertility Issues Addressed by Acupuncture
Acupuncture can be helpful with a wide range of fertility issues, including well-known causes of infertility, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome, endometriosis, and dysfunctional uterine bleeding. But it can also be used to address more opaque conditions, such as declining egg quality or even undiagnosed conditions. In recent years, it has also become popular to combine acupuncture with IVF treatments. In these situations, acupuncturists will work to minimize the side-effects of the intense hormonal therapies a woman will receive in order to harvest an egg and help prepare the woman’s body to maximize the chances of successful implantation. While it may not be possible to treat all causes of infertility with acupuncture, it can still have a very important role to play in a successful treatment plan.
A Fertility Acupuncture session can vary a great deal from one practitioner to another. Each practitioner will bring a specific set of skills and clinical experiences to bear on the problem. In general, however, patients should expect a treatment that might last 45 minutes to an hour or longer. During the first session, the acupuncturist will inquire widely about all aspects of the patient's health. The intake will also include exam techniques that are unique to Chinese medicine, such as the pulse exam and the tongue exam. New patients should also be aware that the needles are not necessarily painless. They can produce some very strong sensations, which is precisely what should happen according to Chinese medicine theory.
An acupuncturist determines where the needles go according to the theory of Chinese medicine. In general, points below the elbows and knees are considered to have systemic effects on the body. These “far away” points may also be combined with “local” points, such as points in the lower abdomen or back. Probably most acupuncturists will follow this general strategy of using points both distally and locally.
Herbs for Fertility
Herbal medicine is a very important aspect of Chinese medicine. In general, the herbs work in just the same way as the needles. They are used to address the underlying condition of the patient. The “diagnosis” will be based on the principles of Chinese medicine, however, not Western medicine. The acupuncturist looks at the patient’s entire clinical presentation to determine what the “pattern of disharmony” is. Treatments are then designed to correct this imbalance or pattern.
Treatments can take time, so the patient needs to stick with her regimen. Women have a relatively small window of fertility each month, when it is possible for a healthy woman to conceive. As a result, it can take months - or longer - for a woman struggling with infertility to achieve a successful pregnancy. At the same, patients should also see evidence of improvement relatively quickly, probably within a couple sessions. There can be a very wide-range of skill levels among acupuncturists. But a good one should be able to help the patient begin to feel better relatively quickly. Infertility can be a thorny problem to treat but acupuncture and herbs give women a whole new toolkit for dealing with this problem.