A Reality Check About Acupuncture
More and more patients undergoing fertility treatment ask about incorporating acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine treatment with their IVF cycle. Some patients are especially inquisitive after reading Lifang Liang's recently published book Acupuncture and IVF: Increase IVF Success by 40-60%. For most patients going through the struggle of infertility, this title proposes a provocative and enticing claim. While acupuncture is based on an ancient medical tradition, current studies are trying to clarify the physiological basis for treatment results. Some indicate that the benefits of acupuncture may be mediated by opioid-types of proteins in the central nervous system. Some of the proteins affect gonadotropin secretion from the pituitary (brain), and therefore could impact menstrual cyclicity to help regulate ovulation. Others propose that blood flow to the pelvic organs may be improved through mechanisms other than the central nervous system therefore improving fertility. And yet others propose there might be a psychosomatic benefit. While all these theories are intriguing, a true understanding of the benefit of acupuncture and its impact on fertility will not be elucidated until the execution of several well designed studies (large numbers of patients, randomized controlled trials). To date, there is only one such study (Paulus et al, Fertil Steril. 2002 Apr;77(4):721-4), which was conducted in Germany. While this study revealed an improvement in pregnancy rates, there are a number of issues with the study itself, which calls for cautious interpretation of the final results (an improvement in pregnancy rates from 26% to 42% - 61.5% improvement rate). For instance, the study was weakened by a low baseline pregnancy rate (26.3%) in a young patient population (early 30yo). Statistically, it is much easier to show an improvement in pregnancy rate, when the baseline pregnancy rate is so low. This finding may not hold true if this study was performed in an IVF center where the pregnancy rates in young patients was closer to 50% (which is what we expect for patients in their early 30s). More importantly, when studying such complex questions, a clear understanding will not be obtained, and claims of improvement cannot be made, until a number of well designed studies are performed and the majority of results echo a similar theme (either positive or negative). In her book, Lifang Liang presents a nice overview of the theories behind Chinese Medicine, as well as various herbal treatments available for fertility patients, and their proposed effects. She then presents a number of "Case Histories", illustrating the use of both herbal therapies and acupuncture. While these are quite interesting, they are anecdotal stories, and do not represent a scientific study to evaluate the role of acupuncture and infertility. The above study by Paulus et al is mentioned in the book, and seems to be the basis for the claim of a 40-60% increase in IVF success rates. As mentioned, this claim should be taken with caution. All of us who serve patients with fertility treatment, whether trained in Western or Chinese medicine, are looking for the best possible outcome for our patients. It would be wonderful if indeed there was a combination of various treatment approaches which, when practiced together, could provide the best "cocktail". However, the exact role that acupuncture plays is currently an unanswered question, until more well-designed studies are performed. We look forward to such studies, to better define the role of acupuncture and herbal remedies in the treatment of infertility.