Role of acupuncture in the treatment of female infertility
Raymond Chang, M.D.[a,b] Pak H. Chung, M.D.[b] and Zev Rosenwaks, M.D.[c]
The Institute of East-West Medicine and the Center for Reproductive Medicine and
Infertility, Weill Medical College of Cornell University, New York, New York
Received June 24, 2002; revised and accepted July 19, 2002.
Reprint requests: Pak H. Chung, M.D., The Center for Reproductive Medicine and
Infertility, Weill Medical College of Cornell University, 505 East 70 Street, New York,
New York 10021 (FAX: 212-746-8208; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Peripheral effects of acupuncture
In addition to the central modulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian axis, the
effects of acupuncture on the autonomic nervous system have been well documented
(47). In the early 1980s, Yao et al. (48) reported long-lasting cardiovascular depression
induced by acupuncture stimulation of the sciatic nerve in unanesthetized hypertensive
rats. In the human, acupuncture was also shown to be sympathoinhibitory. After
acupuncture, sympathetic nerve activity as measured by norepinephrine level, skin
temperature, blood pressure, and pain tolerance threshold was shown to be decreased
Endometrial thickness, morphology, and uterine artery blood flow have been implicated
as important parameters for success of implantation of human embryos (50-57). Despite
conflicting results in the utilization of these parameters during various stages of treatment
to predict outcome in IVF, it is generally believed that adequate endometrial thickness is
required to optimize pregnancy rate. Because endometrial thickness is a function of
uterine artery blood flow, Sher and Fisch (58) reported a novel method of using vaginal
sildenafil in an attempt to improve uterine artery blood flow and endometrial
development in patients undergoing IVF.
With its central sympathoinhibitory effect, acupuncture may contribute to reduce uterine
artery impedance and therefore, increase blood flow to the uterus. In fact, Sterner-
Victorin et al. (59) demonstrated this when they performed acupuncture in 10 infertile
women who were down-regulated by GnRH analog to avoid the effect of endogenous
hormone on the uterine artery blood flow.
Pulsatility index in the uterine artery and skin temperature (on the forehead and
lumbosacral area) were evaluated in three time periods-before, right after, and 2 weeks
after acupuncture treatment (twice a week for 4 weeks). Pulsatility index and skin
temperatures were found to be significantly decreased and increased, respectively, both
right after and 14 days after acupuncture treatment. This effect was hypothesized to be
caused by central inhibition of sympathetic activity.
Acupuncture and stress reduction
It has been well documented that infertility causes stress (60-65), and stress reduction
may, in turn, improve fertility (66). However, the relationship between stress and
infertility is that of a vicious cycle. Social stigmatization, decreased self-esteem, unmet
reproductive potential of sexual relationship, physical and mental burden of treatment,
and the lack of control on treatment outcome are just some of the factors that can lead to
psychological stress in any couple pursuing infertility treatment. In turn, stress may lead
to the release of stress hormones and influence mechanisms responsible for a normal
ovulatory menstrual cycle through its impact on the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian axis.
The use of acupuncture for reducing anxiety and stress possibly through its
sympathoinhibitory property and impact on ß-endorphin levels has been reviewed (67,
68), and the efficacy of acupuncture in depression has also been studied (69). Because the
pharmacological side effects of anxiolytic and antidepressant drugs on infertility
treatment outcome are largely unknown, acupuncture may provide an excellent
alternative for stress reduction in women undergoing infertility treatment.