22.09.2014 Acupuncture

Infertility and Traditional Chinese Medicine

Acupuncture for improving fertility seems especially beneficial in helping older women conceive. Story by Olivier LeJus

Western society has seen many positive changes in the last few decades. In most countries, women now have more professional opportunities than ever before, although having young children while maintaining a successful career remains a difficult path to negotiate. One can understand why so many couples wait until their professional life is well established before deciding to start a family. Unfortunately, as the body gets older, the chance of conception for both sexes gradually declines.

Many studies have shown that women who choose to conceive after the age of 35 have a greater chance of having medical difficulties that may result in infertility. These include lack of ovulation, poor egg quality, thinning endometrial lining, poor quality and number of follicles, low progesterone, blocked fallopian tubes, uterine fibroids, ovarian cysts and endometriosis.

According to the American Society for Reproductive Science, over 6.1 million, or 10%, of women in the United States are diagnosed as being infertile, which is defined as one year of unsuccessful conception. While the risk of miscarriage for a woman aged 25 or younger is around 1 in 7, once she reaches the age of 40, the risk rises to more than 30 per cent.

Men can be responsible for a failed pregnancy nearly as frequently as women. Between 35% to 40% of infertility problems among couples originate with the male partner.

Whatever the cause of the problem, for couples who have always contemplated having children the effort to become pregnant while the biological clock is winding down can be both physically exhausting and highly distressing. Ultimately, when all the best efforts fail, Assisted Reproductive Therapies (ART), which include manipulation of the egg, sperm or both to increase the chances of conception, is often seen as the only remaining alternative. The downside is that it is an expensive option and not always successful. While IVF clinics in Australia have improved their success rates to a remarkable extent over the last two decades, recent research seems to indicate we may have reached a plateau with how much we can presently achieve.

According to Dr Lifang Liang, a US expert in infertility in the field of Chinese medicine, women around the age of 40 who have successful ART procedures suffer miscarriages nearly 50% of the time. When this occurs, or if IVF fails, these patients have exhausted their options of having their own biological child, which can be devastating for many couples.

In South East Asia, Traditional Chinese Medicine has been prescribed for the treatment of infertility for many centuries. According to that framework, a woman's capacity for reproduction is ruled by the energy of her kidneys, with the spleen and liver also involved to some degree. Problems with any of these organs can result in difficulties with conception or pregnancy.

In many cases, acupuncture alone, or in combination with Chinese herbal medicine, can treat the root cause of infertility, and prepare men and women for pregnancy. In addition, when used in conjunction with IVF, Oriental medicine has been shown to significantly enhance a woman's chances of conception. It is now being used in combination with Western medicine in many fertility clinics in the United States.

A study published in 2002 showed that acupuncture treatment administered 25 minutes before and after IVF treatment increased the chances of a successful pregnancy by 15%. The improvement was significantly greater when the woman had been receiving regular acupuncture treatment for weeks prior to the procedure.

As previously mentioned, the male partner can be responsible for more than a third of the incidences of failed pregnancy for several reasons, including low sperm count, abnormal sperm shape, size and motility. In addition, lifestyle, long-term exposure to chemicals, genetics, age and physiological changes can affect a man's ability to produce offspring.

Acupuncture can be very successful in treating male sexual problems such as impotence, but a recent trial published in the magazine Fertility and Sterility suggests that it can also significantly increase the number of normal sperm, while reducing the number of structural defects.

In the published study, the sperm motility levels increased significantly in semen samples in the men receiving acupuncture compared to the control group. Unfortunately, while acupuncture appeared able to improve the overall quality and structural integrity of sperm, it was ineffective against some common sperm pathologies. The authors concluded, "Despite the inability of acupuncture to significantly reduce some sperm abnormalities, the treatment could be used to improve overall sperm quality, leading to the possibility of increased fertility."

The best outcome may be achieved, once again, by combining Oriental and Western medical approaches. We have seen recently in reputable medical journals the results of clinical trials conducted to investigate the effects of acupuncture at the time of embryo transfer. It appears that the acupuncture rates of success were significantly better when the overall expectancy of pregnancy was lower due to the woman's age. As a result, many fertility clinics now recommend acupuncture to women who have had previous failed cycles, or who are 35 or older.

Olivier Lejus MHSc.BHSc. is a registered acupuncturist practising in Sydney.

Olivier Lejus

Olivier Lejus BHSc.MHSc. is a registered acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist practising in Sydney. A former casual university lecturer and tutor in Oriental medicine with over 15 years experience in clinical practice, Olivier specialises in Japanese- style acupuncture for the treatment of male and female infertility, migraine, pain, and insomnia.www.olejusacupuncture.com