with the flick of the acupuncturist's finger, a small needle penetrates the skin of a young freckle-faced woman searching for a treatment for her infertility. what used to be a last resort for many couples aching to get pregnant has now become a frequent complementary treatment for in-vitro fertilization (ivf) patients.
a breakthrough study published in the fertility and sterility journal in 2002 revealed that the combination of ivf and acupuncture could increase fertility chances. german researchers found that the pregnancy rate for ivf treatments nearly doubled when combined with acupuncture therapy. in basic terminology, in-vitro fertilization involves the extraction of the eggs from the ovaries, where they are fertilized in a petri dish. if the eggs fertilize from the sperm, the embryo is then implanted in the uterus. specifically, acupuncture performed before and after embryonic transfer had the highest chance of success.
the theory behind the studies has to do with how acupuncture affects circulation. the insertion of tiny needles into the skin helps to increase the delivery of blood to the ovaries and uterine lining. by improving circulation, acupuncture can make the uterus a more hospitable environment for an egg to survive. it can also help men improve the quality of their sperm, making the chance of reproducing more likely. stress can also be a factor that hinders fertility, and by putting pressure on certain points, endorphins are released in the brain to cause relaxation. generally, the process takes three to four months of twice-weekly sessions before there is a verdict on whether the couple has the ability to get pregnant. the berkley center for reproductive wellness, located on east 40th street, is in the business of treating infertility with acupuncture, conveniently located next to an ivf practice. the office is decorated like a chic sushi restaurant, complete with low lighting, burning incense and orchids and lilies placed throughout. it is a calm environment in midtown where men and women come seeking a dose of eastern medicine to help boost their fertility.
"the truth is that patients who are 25 years old and 40 years old probably have a 25 to 30 percent increase [in pregnancy rates] when combining acupuncture and herbs with ivf," dr. mike berkley said.
the results of the study have been met with some criticism within the reproductive medical community. in 2006, dr. alice domar, an expert on women's health, questioned the statistical significance of the study. after conducting her own study, she found that the pregnancy rate of ivf patients does increase with acupuncture, but not to a degree that is considered statistically significant. the american society of reproductive medicine cites her research as evidence that acupuncture may not necessarily have a causal effect on pregnancy among ivf patients.
"the jury is still out," dr. domar said. "personally, i am a believer in acupuncture. i continue to recommend it because it's very low risk and high return. it can't hurt, and it has potential to help."
interestingly enough, acupuncture has been proven to be a successful method to turn breached babies around inside the womb, according to the world health organization. by placing a needle into the pinkie toe of the mother or using moxibustion, burning mugwort herb, the baby can flip positions, therefore decreasing the chances of a dangerous delivery or necessary c-section.
"moxibustion is an herb that is contained, that looks like a cigar. you hold on to the lateral aspect of the small toe, but you don't actually touch the toe because you'll burn the toe," dr. berkley said. "i've treated about six cases and turned about three fetuses."
along with the heartwarming stories of seemingly miraculous pregnancies comes the reality of failure to conceive for the majority of couples with fertility problems. the infertility treatment industry must tread carefully with its patients, as many have emotional scars from endless years of disappointments and frustration. during one consultation, a 37-year-old patient endured more than an hour of discomforting personal questions as she expressed confusion and dismay with her inability to procreate, despite the fact that she had previously given birth to a son. she continuously scratched her arms and wiggled her pink flip-flops as dr. berkley discussed the woman's options and told her point-blank that there was a chance that she would never get pregnant again.
despite the fact that the science connecting acupuncture and fertility is still in its infancy, acupuncturists find reasons to believe in its power.
"my wife and i had difficulty conceiving," dr. berkley said. "she had acupuncture and herbs. now, we have a son."