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The treatment of infertility is one of modern medicine's greatest challenges, as well as infertility. The Endocrine Society of the United States estimates that approximately 2,000,000 couples seek medical treatment for infertility each year.

Infertility Treatment - one of modern medicine's greatest challenges

It is estimated that approximately 2,000,000 couples seek medical treatment for infertility each year and over 50 per cent of all couples will visit their doctor for help with reproductive issues in the course of a lifetime.

Infertility treatment is expensive and usually not covered by insurance, but there are alternatives. The medical traditions of China, Japan, and Korea have treated infertility in both men and women by acupuncture for at least 1,500 years. No medical method survives for centuries unless it gets results, although only it has only been in the last 20 years that modern science has begun to explain them.

Explaining Infertility Treatment with Acupuncture as Cues and Metaphor

The language of ancient medical books reads very strange today. With titles like Arcane Essentials from the Imperial Library (Wai Tai Bi Yao), medical scholars gradually developed a highly metaphorical and metaphysical language to explain infertility. Infertility in women, for example, came to be explained in terms of unbalanced yin and yang. These energy imbalances could be diagnosed by visual cues.

Yang energies project outward, while yin energies curve inward. If a woman had straight eyelashes, the ancient acupuncturists reasoned, then perhaps she suffered an excess of yang. A medically trained acupuncturist today would see this as a clue that the patient suffers an excess of testosterone that interferes with luteinizing hormone (LH). The ancient acupuncturists came to associate the condition we would now call polycystic ovarian disease (PCOS) with rashes or pimples in the middle of the face. They associated fibroid tumors with yellowing of the whites of the eyes.

The acupuncture treatment for women's infertility today still can be broadly explained as balancing yang energies. Acupuncture does not interfere with good medical care. It does not interfere with medical treatment to increase, for example, the previously mentioned luteinizing hormone (LH), or follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), or medical treatments for anovulation, the failure to release an egg from its follicle.

In at least half of cases of infertility in men, modern medicine cannot pinpoint a single cause. Traditional Chinese Medicine does not attribute male infertility to a single cause, either. A frequent factor in the inability to produce viable sperm is described as a "liver" imbalance. TCM describes the being the energy organ associated with storing and processing of emotions. These energies also empower erection and testicular function. If the practitioner also notices red eyes, chest congestion, depression, or achy neck and shoulders, all manifestations of other imbalances in the flow of liver energy, then treatment would consist of placing needles to redirect the energy flow.

If you were to interview a professor of medicine in China, and I have, almost certainly you would be told that twenty-first century practitioners of acupuncture in China do not believe in the scientific validity of the ancient explanations of acupuncture. Most professors of medicine in the government institutions of China do not ascribe literal truth to the concepts of chi, the energy Meridians, or energy organs, nor in the diagnostic categories of hot and cold, interior and exterior, deficiency and excess, or yang and yin. The practice of acupuncture, however, is regarded as a legitimate tool of healing. It is increasingly verified by modern science.

The Scientific Evidence for Treating Infertility with Acupuncture

Medical research in Asia, Europe, and North America has accumulated a growing body of evidence that acupuncture is effective in treating many conditions, including infertility in women and men. Clinical trials compare "real" acupuncture, placing needles at the traditional points on the body for a given diagnosis, and "sham" acupuncture, placing needles at random points of the body. Science does not document that acupuncture is effective in treating absolutely every cause of infertility, but neither is medicine. Here are some of the causes of infertility acupuncture reliably treats, documented in just eight of over 300 studies:

  • Acupuncture has been demonstrated to be successful in treating amenorrhea (failure to have any periods), dysmenorrhea (irregular periods), morning sickness, and problems in labor and delivery.1
  • Electroacupuncture (use of needles connected to a mild current after placement at traditional acupuncture points) may activate genes in the brain that regulate the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian axis,2 which regulates the increase and decrease of women's hormones throughout the menstrual cycle.
  • Electroacupuncture increases blood flow to the uterus in experiments aimed to increase the success of in vitro fertilization and embryo implantation.3
  • Electroacupuncture helps induce ovulation in women who have polycystic ovarian syndrome. The best results are found in women with the mildest symptoms of PCOS, smaller waists, lower waist-to-hips circumference levels, lower testosterone levels, lower serum insulin levels, and lower levels of the blood proteins that bind sex hormones.4
  • In men with severe oligoasthenozoospermia (low sperm count combined with low sperm motility), traditional acupuncture (without electric current) was found to make sperm more motile, that is, more capable of navigating the cervix and uterus to reach the egg. Acupuncture treatment did not increase sperm concentrations in semen.5
  • When low sperm count is associated with high testicular temperature (that is, the testes were located too far inside the body to allow normal development of sperm cells), acupuncture in many cases lowered testicular temperature so that sperm could mature. Surgical re-placement of the testicles was not required.6
  • When male infertility was characterized as "withered yang," 170 out of 248 men were able to father children after 20 treatments with traditional acupuncture.7
  • In men treated with the drug clomiphene (marketed as Clomid, Serophene, or Milophene), men were 50% to achieve restored fertility when receiving both the drug and acupuncture than when receiving the drug alone. Treatment took 3 months.8

As in the clinical trials involving women, the men who responded the best to acupuncture were those with the highest beginning sperm counts and best beginning sperm motility. Acupuncture is very useful, but it is not a miracle cure.

If You Are Treating Infertility Using Acupuncture, You Are Not Alone

The journal Andrology reports that there are over 600,000,000 visits to alternative medicine practitioners every year in the United States alone. The research science focuses on acupuncture as a stand-alone treatment or as a modality to complement doctor-prescribed medications. Acupuncturists also want to give you multiple modes of treatment. Most practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine will combine acupuncture with herbal teas for you to make at home.

The principles of herbal medicine are also based on the energy system, but no two patients will necessarily receive exactly the same combination of herbs.  Practitioners of traditional Asian medicine will tend to offer infertile men who suffer muscle strain formulas containing cinnamon, while they may offer men over 50 formulas containing astragalus, ginger, and black cohosh. Women with polycystic ovarian disease may be given peony and licorice, while women with irregular menstruation may be given herbs such as ginger and ginseng to "warm" circulation. When Asian herbal formulas are made with pure ingredients, standardized and clinically tested, much of the science supports the centuries of claims for their use as a complement to acupuncture.

Your chances for success in treating infertility using acupuncture are greatest when you find a practitioner who is willing to explain your treatment in both traditional and modern medical terms. Acupuncture is a cost-effective measure that will not interfere with anything your physician can do for you. Treating infertility with acupuncture is most reliably used to increase your success with standard medical treatment, but in the easiest cases, acupuncture can relieve infertility even when used alone.

  • Beal MW. J Nurse Midwifery. Acupuncture and acupressure. Applications to women's reproductive health care. 1999 May-Jun:44(3):217-30. Review
  • Chen BY. Acupuncture normalizes dysfunction of hypothalamic-pituitary ovarian axis. Acupunct Electrother Res 1997: 22, 97-108
  • Ho M, Huang LC, Chang YY, Chen HY, Chang WC, Yang TC, Tsai HD. Electroacupuncture reduces uterine artery blood flow impedance in infertile women. Taiwan J Obstet Gynecol. 2009 Jun:48(2):148-51
  • Stener-Victorin E, Waldenström U, Tägnfors U, Lundeberg T, Lindstedt G, Janson PO. Effects of electro-acupuncture on anovulation in women with polycystic ovary syndrome. Acta Obstet Gynecol Scand. 2000 Mar:79(3):180-8
  • Dieterle S, Li C, Greb R, Bartzsch F, Hatzmann W, Huang D. A prospective randomized placebo-controlled study of the effect of acupuncture in infertile patients with severe oligoasthenozoospermia. Fertil Steril. 2009 Oct:92(4):1340-3. Epub 2009 Apr 25
  • Siterman S, Eltes F, Schechter L, Maimon Y, Lederman H, Bartoov B. Success of acupuncture treatment in patients with initially low sperm output is associated with a decrease in scrotal skin temperature. Asian J Androl. 2009 Mar:11(2):200-8. Epub 2009 Jan 5
  • Crimmel AS, Conner CS, Monga M. Withered Yang: a review of traditional Chinese medical treatment of male infertility and erectile dysfunction. J Androl. 2001 Mar-Apr:22(2):173-82
  • Xinyun H. Acupuncture plus medication for male idiopathic oligospermia. Shanghai J Acupuncture Moxibustion 1998, 2:35-37
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