Updated: Nov 4, 2020
by Julie Chang, Guest Writer*
With an increasing number of women delaying children until later in life, a woman may wait to get pregnant until her late 30s or 40s.
Often her first course of action if pregnancy hasn’t been achieved within a few months is a trip to her gynecologist who, in turn, will refer her to a fertility doctor, a reproductive endocrinologist (RE).
Rarely is acupuncture considered an early treatment option for women having difficulty getting pregnant. However, acupuncture has been proven in studies and clinically to help women into their 40s get pregnant and thus should be considered earlier.
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture has been used for over 3,000 years in Asia to treat many ailments. It is one of several healing modalities that Traditional Chinese Medicine offers, including herbal medicine, nutrition therapy, medical massage (Tui Na), Qi Gong (breath work to strengthen the body), and Tai Chi (a martial arts form). Based in Taoist philosophy, acupuncture and TCM developed from several thousand years of observation, clinical experience, and scholarly research.
Acupuncture specifically for fertility started growing in popularity in the United States in 2002 after a landmark study was published. This study found that women receiving acupuncture treatment with IVF had an increase in ongoing pregnancy rates of over 60 percent compared to control subjects.
Many studies since then have confirmed acupuncture’s effectiveness in helping women get pregnant. Given its safety record and comparatively lower cost than medicated cycle, it can be an effective stand-alone or complementary treatment.
Despite the use of needles, acupuncture is an extremely safe modality in the hands of a trained acupuncturist. Acupuncture is the insertion of very thin needles into the body. The difference between acupuncture and acupressure is that acupuncture uses needles to stimulate different areas on the body whereas acupressure uses finger pressure instead of needles.
Acupuncture can address multiple areas of the body at one time with as many needles as needed whereas an acupressurist is limited to his fingers.
The efficiency of acupuncture is useful because women usually have secondary issues to address besides improving fertility. Common complaints include insomnia, headaches, fatigue, stress, and pain.
How does acupuncture work?
According to Chinese medical theory, a disease arises in the body from blockages of qi or blood. Qi is your life force and that's the part of you that defines who you are when you're alive. Qi leaves your physical body when you die. Interestingly, modern medicine doesn't recognize life force until you actually die.
There are two important ways that acupuncture works as it pertains to fertility. At its most simplest, it improves blood flow to the reproductive organs. When you get a paper cut, your body will automatically know to send help to the injured area by increasing blood flow loaded with healing agents like antibodies, white blood cells, growth factors, enzymes, and nutrients to repair itself.
Acupuncture works similarly. Acupuncture needles cause microscopic cuts (no, it won’t hurt!) all over the body to stimulate the healing response.
If needles are inserted in the abdominal area where the ovaries and the uterus are, the flow of blood will increase to that area. Thus, more nutrients nourish the ovaries to improve egg quality and quantity and more blood flow to the uterine lining to prepare for implantation of the embryo following an IVF transfer.
Many women also use acupuncture to reduce stress since it balances the central nervous system to shift it out of fight-or-flight response. Stress is a well-known cause of fertility issues and often needs to be decreased for a successful pregnancy.
Does acupuncture hurt?
Fear of needles often prevents a person from trying acupuncture. However, the acupuncture needles are not like the hypodermic needles used to draw blood. Rather, they are very thin, about the thickness of a hair. They are usually inserted to very shallow depths of no more than a few millimeters.
A mild pricking sensation may be felt as the needle pierces the skin. Once inserted, no pain is felt. In fact, many people fall asleep with the needles in - that's how comfortable they are. So don't let the fear of needles prevent you from trying acupuncture!
How to choose an acupuncturist?
Choose an acupuncturist who is convenient to you so that the commute time doesn’t become a barrier to you going at the recommended frequency.
Ideally, find someone who has fertility experience. However, if you’re seeing a generalist because that’s your best choice, that will be fine.
Here are the most common ways clients find acupuncturists:
· Ask a friend for a referral. You’ll be surprised by how many women have needed extra help to get pregnant. Opening the conversation can lead to unexpected discoveries.
· Ask your fertility doctor for a referral. You can trust if a doctor recommends an acupuncturist, he or she most likely has plenty of fertility experience.
· Google “fertility acupuncture 92111 (replace with your zip code).” Look through the websites to see who you resonate with and call them to ask your questions. Remember that you’re interviewing them for the best fit, not the other way around.
How often should I have acupuncture?
Your acupuncturist may have slightly different recommendations. In general, if you're trying to conceive naturally, acupuncture at least once a week is recommended. If you can comfortably afford twice a week, that would be even better.
My experience is that women who start with twice a week because they’re excited in the beginning and they want to give it their all, give up on acupuncture more quickly because they’re looking at the rapidly rising cost.
If finances are an issue, start with once a week because it’s more important to be able to be consistent with the treatment long-term. Think of your fertility journey as if you’re training for a marathon, rather than a sprint.
If you're doing an IVF or an insemination, try to plan ahead and start acupuncture at least three months prior to your medicated cycle. If your cycle is going to be sooner than that, just start acupuncture as soon as you can.
Once you get pregnant, increase frequency of acupuncture sessions to twice a week for the first trimester. This is the most delicate stage of a pregnancy and acupuncture can help with the implantation process as well as reduce any first trimester symptoms.
What can you expect to feel with acupuncture?
Because improving fertility is a gradual process that takes time, you won’t see immediate results. Rather most women report generalized symptoms such as feeling more relaxed after their first acupuncture treatments.
Other improvements may include increased energy, better sleep, and feeling more clear headed. Although these signs are not specific to fertility, they indicate that your body is functioning better and responding to acupuncture.
Sometimes people report that their menstrual cycles get better, indicating improved hormonal regulation. Reduced cramping, less breast tenderness, or fewer headaches related to your cycle are excellent signs that acupuncture is working for you.
If bleeding gets heavier for an otherwise light menses or, vice versa, less bleeding when excessive bleeding is the norm suggest a healthier menstrual cycle.
Another sign indicating progress is more production of “fertile” cervical mucus. As a woman gets closer to ovulation, her cervical mucus often gets stretchier and becomes clear, similar to egg white. As a woman ages, cervical mucus production decreases. Acupuncture may reverse that trend so a woman may see more egg white cervical mucus produced for a longer period, thus providing a longer fertile window period.
How long it will take to get pregnant with acupuncture?
Acupuncture is not a quick fix, often taking months, sometimes years before a pregnancy is achieved.
Fertility issues do not crop up overnight. They are a result of lifelong habits and beliefs so will take time to resolve enough for fertility to be restored.
The window for improving egg quality is two to four months before ovulation. This is the time when the immature eggs cells are developing to prepare for ovulation.
Egg quality cannot be fixed after ovulation. Instead, DNA damage needs to be prevented. Chromosomal damage is the most common reason a woman in her late 30s or 40s takes longer to get pregnant…there are less healthy eggs as compared to a woman in her 20s or early 30s.
Acupuncture can improve the follicle cells before they develop into the final egg cell for ovulation.
At birth, your body initially had millions of egg cells, but most of them will not develop into egg cells for ovulation.
The cell that goes on to become the ovulated one needs to be optimized, so it can be the very best, healthiest cell possible.
It is important to do everything you can, including acupuncture, to stack the odds towards a better quality egg and improving your chances of conceiving.
Start now, but expect the results a few months (or even a year or two) down the road.
Acupuncture is only one of many ways to improve your chances of success when trying to conceive.
For more tips on how to improve your fertility, get the first five chapters of my new book, “Cracking the Egg Myth: Proven Ways to Improve Egg Quality” here.