Fertility Acupuncture: What Is It and Does It Actually Work?

If you're trying to conceive, and traditional methods aren't working, it makes sense that you'd turn to any alternative treatment you might think of. One such treatment, which you may have encountered before, is acupuncture.

Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine, which has been broadly used for centuries, but gained more and more popularity over the last few decades. Its modern-day peak may have passed already, but that doesn't mean it's not still popular, with acupuncturists present in every major city, and the practice widespread throughout the world.

As a form of traditional medicine based on spiritual effects, acupuncture has been recommended for hundreds of different situations. A fertility aid is just one of them; it has been used for everything from pain to nausea to dry eye to Alzheimer's disease.

Also because of its prevalence, acupuncture is genuinely quite safe. Global governments have put a lot of regulations in place to make sure that the people sticking needles into your skin are doing it safely, regardless of how valuable or not valuable the practice ends up being for you.

The Science of Acupuncture

As you might expect from any form of traditional medicine, science is looking into the potential benefits of the practice. Acupuncture doesn't require careful growth or refinement of a specific plant, so it's easy to test and isolate. All you need is a set of small, thin needles, a map of the traditional acupuncture points – which vary depending on tradition, by the way – and a practitioner able to insert the needles carefully and accurately.

As such, acupuncture has been the subject of thousands of scientific studies for all manner of different purposes. 

Unfortunately, there's not a lot of evidence to suggest that acupuncture does much of anything tangible for any real disease, disorder, or illness. 

What does acupuncture actually do? The actual practice of acupuncture is essentially a form of pressure point therapy. Except rather than pressure points, which are usually nerve clusters or muscle trigger points, acupuncture points are specified by traditional Chinese folklore as locations where Qi energy could flow.

Now, whether you believe in one of the many intangible forms of energy that flow through the body or not, acupuncture is still the simple act of jabbing a needle into the skin. Unlike shots or blood draws, acupuncture needles are not stabbed deep, nor are they very large needles. In fact, they are meant to be very small and thin, intended to trigger those energy points, not to inject a fluid or extract one.

The insertion and, sometimes, stimulation of those needles – via electricity, manual manipulation, or other means – is meant to induce a faint tingling sensation in the area where they are placed. This is indicative of anything from stimulation of the nerves to the passing of Qi. 

In reality, all this does is causes a sensation not unlike scratching your skin. The needles aren't placed deep enough to damage the epidermis significantly, and unless there's another factor involved – like electricity – they don't do much while they're placed. 

Most forms of acupuncture are also coupled with a sort of aromatherapy, known as moxibustion. Moxibustion is the burning (combustion) of moxa, a small cone of mugwort. This is meant to be a combination of aromatherapy and heat therapy, as the cones are burned near or on the skin. This isn't always the case, and when it is, it is sometimes accompanied by cupping or another traditional Chinese practice.

Tangible Benefits of Acupuncture

Are there actually any real benefits of acupuncture? It's hard to say.

Will acupuncture cure a disease? Probably not. Will it alleviate pain? Perhaps. Will it improve your fertility? It depends a lot on why you're having fertility issues in the first place.

Acupuncture basically has three effects. The first of these three effects is the release of endorphins into the bloodstream. The minor effect of piercing the skin with a needle is similar to pressure point therapy or even massage, in that it can be comfortable for many people, and that helps release endorphins that have beneficial effects on pain and other illnesses.

The second effect is a sort of relaxation or stress relief. Acupuncture offices are usually calming and may have some meditative benefits. Meditation itself is another form of traditional medicine that may or may not have much impact, but it's been proven to be semi-effective for a few things before.

The third effect is, if nothing else, a placebo effect. It's well known that some people will get better simply by thinking that their treatment works, even if the treatment is nothing but an empty sugar pill. Thus, if you believe that acupuncture is helping you, there's no reason it couldn't, really.

Common Causes of Fertility Issues

Before you can identify whether or not acupuncture can be beneficial to you when you're trying to conceive, you want to identify what kind of fertility issue you're having. There are a lot of different reasons why you might be having difficulty.

You can broadly classify fertility issues into three main categories.

Physical fertility issues are generally caused by tangible problems with some part of the reproductive system. These can range from tumors or cysts in the fallopian tubes or ovaries, to polyps in the uterus, to scar tissue in the endometrium, to a birth defect. 

Chemical fertility issues are issues that crop up with your body's systems. The most common is a hormone imbalance. Too much or too little of specific hormones can make fertility much lower than normal. Thyroid issues can also cause this.

External fertility issues are issues that are caused by external factors. For example, extreme stress can lead to fertility problems. Intense periods of exercise and abrupt weight loss can also lead to fertility issues. And, of course, there's always the possibility that the fertility issue isn't on your end, but rather on your parther's.

Among these issues, very few of them are likely to be treatable by acupuncture.

  • Tumors or cysts are far below the surface of the skin and will not be impacted at all by surface-level needles.
  • Excessive weight has many cures, but acupuncture is not one of them.
  • Endometriosis typically requires surgical intervention, and the minor impact of acupuncture isn't going to help.

These are just a few examples. Keeping what we know of acupuncture in mind, however, there are a few ways that it could potentially help certain fertility issues.

Fertility Problems Acupuncture Might Help

Among the many possible fertility problems experienced by both men and women, acupuncture might be able to help with only some of them. However, if you're experiencing one of those particular issues, acupuncture could be worth trying. After all, it won't hurt your chances, so why not?

First of all, the brief stimulation of endorphins can have a balancing effect on bodily hormones. Combined with the stress reduction inherent in any relaxing and meditative treatment, it's entirely possible that minor hormonal imbalances and similar issues could be affected by acupuncture.

Additionally, if your primary fertility issue is a stressful life, taking the time out to experience a spa-like acupuncture treatment, possibly combined with other beneficial treatments like massage or aromatherapy, can be highly beneficial. Even taking half an hour each week to meditate and relax, whether you do it with acupuncture or not, can be extremely helpful for mental and physical ailments alike.

While mostly this has been focused on female infertility, male infertility may respond to some forms of acupuncture as well, for the same reasons. Hormone and stress-based issues can be somewhat alleviated by acupuncture.

There is also some thinking that specific kinds of targeted acupuncture can increase blood flow to the reproductive organs, which in turn can have some effect on fertility. Science hasn't found a direct link, here, so there's not much to support this claim, but it's another claim where it isn't likely to adversely affect your chances one way or the other.

Many of the studies that have been performed on acupuncture typically couple it with other forms of fertility therapy, most typically medication. Acupuncture has been shown in some cases to have a minor beneficial correlation with successful births, but it's such a minor benefit that it's generally written off as within the margin of error for the study. Still, in almost every study, it's a positive correlation, not a negative one.

When to Administer Acupuncture

If you're trying to conceive, when is the best time to try acupuncture? There are a few different times you can try it.

  • Ongoing treatment that begins 3-4 months before IVF or before attempts to conceive. This typically is aimed at some level of therapeutic effect.
  • Treatment while trying to conceive. Not at the exact same time, of course, but in the same ballpark. This is when stress-related effects are worst, and when the relaxation of acupuncture can be beneficial.
  • During the first few months of pregnancy. Miscarriages most frequently occur during the first three months, so acupuncture treatment is usually carried through at least that long.

On top of that, all forms of acupuncture should avoid six specific acupuncture points: Gallbladder 21, Stomach 12, Large Intestine 4, Spleen 6, Bladder 60, and Bladder 67. These are all abdominal points where even a minor infection can be detrimental to pregnancy, so they should be avoided.

Potential Risks of Acupuncture for Fertility

Acupuncture is generally considered safe, but that's because it's widely regulated around the world. Depending on where you're trying to have your acupuncture therapy performed, you may face more risks than others.

The primary potential side effects of acupuncture are infection. Acupuncture is, after all, needles puncturing the skin. The skin is a barrier that protects the inside of your body from infection, so stabbing it full of holes – even if they're shallow, tiny holes – is a vector for possible infection.

Acupuncturists typically fight against this risk in a few ways. Firstly, regulations state that acupuncture needles should be sterilized and should be single-use only. This minimizes any risk of transferring infection from one patient to another. 

Secondly, acupuncture typically sterilizes the skin before inserting a needle, to prevent any lingering infection from surface-level germs. Additionally, after therapy, an antibiotic ointment is typically administered. 

Other risks of acupuncture concern those who have blood clotting disorders or who have clotting issues as a side effect of a medication they're taking. Since acupuncture can pierce deep enough to draw blood, if you have trouble stopping bleeding, it's not a good therapy.

There are very rare cases where extreme misplacement of a needle can do damage as well. For example, there have been cases where a needle has been placed too deeply and has punctured a lung. These are very rare, however, and are usually a result of unlicensed and untrained acupuncturists.

To help prevent any risks of acupuncture, try to take care of any wounds from therapy on your own by keeping them clean. Additionally, try to make sure that your acupuncturist is licensed and certified in your state. State regulations may vary on what is required for certification, but they're generally all high enough regulations that they guarantee a pretty good level of care.

If you're getting acupuncture done in another country, you may want to do some investigation into how the therapist performs their therapy. Sanitation isn't always a concern in some countries, and infection becomes a higher risk if you're on vacation and not used to local germs.

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