Despite claim by acupuncture specialists, it does not improve IVF live birth rates, new study says

The study included 848 women from Australia and New Zealand undergoing in vitro fertilisation

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 May, 2018, 2:34am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 May, 2018, 3:12am

One of the most popular wellness services at fertility clinics is acupuncture, a traditional Chinese treatment that involves placing sterile needles at various points on the body to manipulate the “chi”, or energy flow – but a new study suggests that its usefulness is limited.

Acupuncture practitioners say the procedure may increase blood flow in women undergoing in vitro fertilisation (IVF), which may increase the chances of an embryo that has been fertilised in a laboratory implanting in the uterus.

It is an alluring pitch, but the scientific literature on this subject has been mixed, with some early studies suggesting a potential benefit but some later reviews finding no effect. There have been questions and limitations about the quality of the evidence.

This week in the American Medical Association’s journal, JAMA, researchers report the results of a study that looked at that question using a respected research method: A randomised clinical trial. And the results were not good for acupuncture.

It involved studying women who received either acupuncture or what the researchers called “sham acupuncture”, in which non-invasive needles were placed away from acupuncture points. 

There were 848 women, from Australia and New Zealand, in the study, and all were undergoing a fresh IVF cycle. Their mean age was 35.4 years.

Three treatments were given. The first was administered some time between days six to eight to the women taking medicine to stimulate the ovaries to make more eggs, the second before embryo transfer, and the third after embryo transfer.

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The results, as measured by live births, between the two groups were no different. 

In the acupuncture group, 74 out of 405 women, or 18 per cent, had live births. In the sham acupuncture group, 72 out of 404, or 18 per cent, had live births.

Caroline Smith, the lead investigator, and her co-authors wrote: “The findings do not support the use of acupuncture to improve the rate of live births among women undergoing IVF.”

The findings support the most recent guidelines, released in 2017, from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, that there is “fair” evidence that acupuncture performed around the time of embryo transfer does not improve live-birth rates.

In Britain, reproductive health experts expressed worry that people seeking fertility services are being “bullied” into add-on treatments. 

Lesley Regan, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said some clinics were taking advantage of vulnerable patients, according to The Independent.

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“I see women and men come in who have been given shoeboxes full of add-on therapies, and have spent thousands and thousands of pounds on non-evidence-based treatments,” she said.

Outside of IVF, acupuncture is used by a growing number of patients seeking relief from lower back pain, headaches and arthritis. 

The US National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) says some studies suggest it may help ease some types of pain, although any improvement is indistinguishable from a placebo effect.