A team of doctors from the University of Maryland and the University of Amsterdam have published a report in the British Medical Journal, claiming that acupuncture could increase IVF success rates by as much as 65 per cent.
The team, led by researcher Eric Manheimer, reviewed seven different studies published since 2002, comprising trials involving 1,366 women undergoing IVF treatment. The women taking part in the trials were given acupuncture immediately before or immediately after the embryo was implanted in their womb. The team found that for every ten IVF cycles where acupuncture was used in this way, an additional pregnancy ensued. Taking all the information from the studies, the team concluded that women who had acupuncture in conjunction with IVF were 65 per cent more likely to have a successful embryo transfer, compared to those that had no treatment or were given fake acupuncture.Acupuncture is believed to increase blood flow to the uterus as well as stimulating the neurotransmitters that trigger production of gonadotrophin-releasing hormones, controlling women's ovulation, which is why it may be potentially helpful to women undergoing IVF treatment. It has been used in Chinese medicine to regulate fertility for hundreds of years. The cost of acupuncture treatments is around £50 per session, as compared to the £4,000 to £6,000 cost of one IVF cycle. This means that it is potentially cost effective to introduce acupuncture alongside IVF.
However, the conclusions drawn by the study have not convinced everyone of the efficacy of acupuncture. Professor Edzard Ernst, from the Peninsula Medical School in Plymouth remained sceptical, saying 'on the face of it, these results sound fantastic. I would, however, be very cautious as much of the observed effect could be due to placebo response'. It could be that women are expecting the treatment to be helpful, which makes them more relaxed when undergoing IVF, with the result that the treatment is more effective. The doctors involved in the trial deny that the placebo effect resulted in successful treatment, because the women taking part in the trial receiving fake acupuncture - where needles were put in the wrong places - did not also experience increased pregnancy rates.
Around 32,000 British women undergo IVF each year, resulting in 11,000 births annually. Previous studies had indicated that women undergoing acupuncture in conjunction with IVF were actually less likely to become pregnant. However, it is thought that these women had sought out acupuncture themselves, rather than being randomly assigned as part of a trial, and were doing so because their chances of conceiving were already poor.
Mr Manheimer warned that the results were preliminary and did not imply that all women should seek out acupuncture. He explained that 'acupuncture can improve the rates of pregnancy and live birth. Some couples might want to choose acupuncture, but others might want to wait until further research has been done'.