Some women swear by acupuncture as a natural way to give their fertility a boost, but for women already undergoing in-vitro fertilization (IVF), the ancient Chinese treatment may not offer any benefits, according to researchers from Northwestern University in Chicago. In the study, published online June 21, 2010, in the journal Fertility and Sterility, researchers tracked pregnancy rates among a group of 160 women receiving IVF treatment at a Chicago-area fertility clinic. Researchers assigned some of the women to receive acupuncture right before and after treatment. Others in the group received a "sham" version of acupuncture, in which needles were still placed in the skin, but at points not believed to be related to fertility. According to researchers, 45 percent of women in the acupuncture group were pregnant within five to six weeks after the IVF cycle, but the rate was 53 percent among those who received the sham procedure.
The results are discouraging, but researchers note that the treatment schedule used in this and other studies—acupuncture sessions only on the day of the embryo transfer—may not be enough to stimulate any health benefits. In real-world practice, acupuncturists treating women with fertility problems typically perform several sessions over weeks or months.
According to traditional medicine, specific acupuncture points on the skin are connected to internal pathways that conduct energy. Stimulating these points with a fine needle, it is believed, promotes the healthy flow of energy and unleashes healing in the body. acupuncture has been used for more than 2,000 years in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of health conditions.
So does it or doesn't it work? Even researchers still aren't sure. With such pregnancy rates similar in both the true acupuncture and "sham" groups, the study's authors speculated that perhaps any kind of needle treatment was helpful to women receiving IVF. As a Reuters Health story on the study notes, it could be that acupuncture needling, even when performed at non-acupuncture sites, has some sort of effect on IVF pregnancy rates that is outside of the principles of traditional Chinese medicine. Researchers call for future studies of acupuncture to change the "sham" method to use needles that don't penetrate the skin as a more reliable way to gauge the true effectiveness of acupuncture.