Fertility

Woman lying down and having an acupuncture treatment on her stomach in an alternative medical clinic
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Here's Everything You Need To Know About Acupuncture & Fertility

A reproductive endocrinologist and an acupuncturist answer commonly asked questions about the alternative treatment.

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If you’re trying to get pregnant and not having any luck it can be disappointing and even devastating as the months roll by with negative test after negative test. Typically infertility is diagnosed after trying to get pregnant for a full year without success, but a year can feel like an eternity, especially when what you want seems so out of your own control. Whether you’ve hit the year mark or are trying to improve your chances of getting pregnant before it gets to that point, you may be interested in learning more about acupuncture for fertility.

Here, Romper asked Tarun Jain, M.D., reproductive endocrinologist and infertility specialist at Northwestern Medicine, and Giselle Wasfie, board-certified acupuncturist and herbalist and founder of Remix Lifestyle, commonly asked questions about acupuncture and infertility. And spoiler alert, while the results are mixed, there is some science backing the idea that acupuncture can be helpful for both women and men experiencing infertility.

Why do people get acupuncture for fertility?

To start with the very basics, acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) that involves a trained practitioner inserting hair thin needles into the body at various acupuncture points. It can be used to help treat many conditions, including infertility.

“Acupuncture works by balancing the body,” says Wasfie. When addressing issues with getting pregnant (whether naturally or with medical intervention), the aim is to remove any blockage within the body that may be hindering conception, she explains.

She notes specifically that she believes the fertility challenges she sees are typically brought upon by low blood circulation, a “cold uterus,” a qi (“life force”) deficiency, and negative emotions. One sign of a cold uterus is a period that is always late or delayed. “You want to have a warm blood flow to the uterus,” she says, and acupuncture can improve blood flow.

Another reason people may seek out acupuncture (and their Western doctor or IVF clinic may even recommend it) is because, “people are looking for any additional means to improve chances of pregnancy beyond traditional medicine,” Dr. Jain tells Romper. “There is widespread belief that [acupuncture] may help improve energy, blood flow, and overall chances of conception.”

Does acupuncture for fertility work?

Anecdotally speaking, Wasfie says that nearly all of the patients she’s treated using acupuncture for fertility have eventually gotten pregnant. “Acupuncture enhances fertility treatment by improving blood flow to the ovaries and uterus as well as balancing the body’s thyroid activity to create the right amount of hormones during pregnancy, making the embryo implementation more effective,” Wasfie says. “However, the benefits of acupuncture go beyond physical ailments. It can also be used in the treatment for stress, anxiety, depression— all of which can be brought on by fertility treatments.”

Dr. Jain says that studies on the efficacy of acupuncture and fertility are mixed. “Some [studies] show improvement whereas others show no difference. The mechanism of action is not known,” he says, but adds that many patients who do acupuncture feel that it is relaxing and reduces their stress. Certain studies also show that acupuncture can help improve sperm quality, though others show the opposite findings.

One of the tenets of TCM is that "the ability to relax deeply cools inflammation and the blood temperature in the body so that you're in an optimal state for your body to actually carry out what it wants to do,” Wasfie says. “Pregnancy is a natural state. And that's another thing I always tell my patients when they're worried: this is a natural progression. Your baby wants to grow. So we're working with that energy. We're not working in opposition to something that actually wants to happen. When you plant a seed, doesn't it want to become a flower or a plant? The job of an acupuncturist with regards to pregnancy [is to] create that fertile soil for that plant to grow.”

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Acupuncture points for fertility

The specific acupuncture points will vary by each person's unique situation. “We do lower abdominal points for fertility and also ‘kidney’ points around the ankle, and top of the head point for uplifting the energy in the body, but it really comes down for the patient and their particular diagnosis,” Wasfie says. She adds that there are what’s known as “microsystems” in the body, and it would not be abnormal for an acupuncturist to treat points in the face or ear for fertility, as both of those are microsystems. “Return to the nest” points in the fingers and thumb are also often used to treat gynecological issues. Something important to note is if you suspect you may be in early pregnancy be sure to tell your practitioner who will likely avoid needling the abdomen.

How much does acupuncture for fertility cost?

Like most things related to healthcare, the cost of acupuncture will totally vary based on whether or not your insurance covers it, where you live, the acupuncturist you see, etc. “Depending on your coverage, acupuncture treatments are either covered by insurance or are eligible for reimbursement. If you are paying out of pocket, a typical 60-minute session can cost around $75 - $100,” Wasfie says. You can also look into reputable community acupuncture places which are generally more affordable because many people will be treated in the same room.

Does acupuncture hurt?

It’s totally understandable to think that sticking little needles into your skin may not be the most pleasant experience, but truthfully (speaking as someone who has a regular acupuncture practice) it doesn’t hurt, and at worst, is sometimes mildly uncomfortable. The needles are extremely thin and flexible without super sharp points, and if you’re experiencing discomfort, you may just need to ask the acupuncturist to adjust the needle slightly.

“Acupuncture does not cause pain or discomfort, however, you may partially feel the insertion of the tiny needle going in. If your body is being activated for the first time, a normal and common sensation that can be experienced during a session is called Qi, which is the feeling of your body’s momentum,” Wasfie says. “This can manifest as a heavy dullness, a slight pulling, or even a pulsing sensation. It’s all normal and just means that the body is being activated by the needles, but it can vary depending on your tolerance and sensitivity.”

Personally, sometimes during my acupuncture treatments, I experience an unusual but painless sensation; it almost feels like my limbs have fallen asleep or a warm breeze is inside my body. I always leave feeling an extreme sense of relaxation, well-being, and pleasant sleepiness.

How many acupuncture sessions do you need to help fertility?

Again, the number of sessions you need is variable depending on each specific situation. “Beginning with five sessions is a good start. After the five sessions, your practitioner may prescribe more treatments,” Wasfie says.

Your acupuncturist may also prescribe Chinese herbs that you can ingest to also help boost fertility. Wasfie specifically mentions mugwort, which can help “generate increased blood flow to the uterus, and can be taken in several different forms. Mugwort can be ingested as a tea, although it is quite bitter, so I would recommend mixing it with tastier herbs like ginger, lavender, and peppermint.”

Mugwort is also involved in moxibustion, which Wasfie says may also be done in tandem with acupuncture to improve fertility. It involves burning a cone of mugwort leaves on or near acupressure points; the heat (which should not be hot enough to cause pain or burn) is said to help stimulate the points and improve energy flow.

As Dr. Jain said, studies on acupuncture’s efficacy are somewhat mixed at this point, but if you are dealing with fertility issues, it’s not likely to cause harm. At the very least, you’ll leave feeling super relaxed.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to remove a quote overstating the prevalence of studies that show that acupuncture can improve fertility.

Studies referenced:

Jerng U, et al. (2014). The effectiveness and safety of acupuncture for poor semen quality in infertile males. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4236334/

Zhu J, et al. (2018). Acupuncture Treatment for Fertility. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6182526/

Sources:

Tarun Jain, MD, reproductive endocrinologist and infertility specialist at Northwestern Medicine

Giselle Wasfie, board-certified acupuncturist and herbalist, founder of Remix Lifestyle

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