Elena Conis — Special to The Times
Jackie Apuzzo is 16 weeks pregnant - something she was beginning to
think would never happen.
Following nine years of unsuccessful efforts to have a baby, including
failed in vitro fertilization, a miscarriage and a diagnosis of
endometriosis, the 37-year-old social worker finally visited an
acupuncturist on the advice of a friend. After two months of
acupuncture treatments and a regimen of Chinese herbs, she became
As more women than ever delay having children until their 30s and
40s, infertility is a growing challenge in the U.S. An estimated 3
million couples are unable to conceive after a year of trying,
according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. Fertility
clinics have done a brisk business in recent years, but now doctors say
that a growing number of women who have been unable to get pregnant
through conventional medical treatments are seeking out alternatives
such as acupuncture. Demand for the traditional Chinese method is so
great that an increasing number of fertility doctors now are
collaborating with acupuncturists, with some physicians adding
acupuncturists to their staff, according to doctors and experts in the
Although many acupuncturists and doctors of oriental medicine swear by
the treatment — and have relied on it as an infertility remedy for
years — the mainstream medical community remains divided on
acupuncture's efficacy. Some doctors say more research is needed to
demonstrate acupuncture's effectiveness, and others believe it's
irresponsible to recommend the treatment based on the existing
Most fertility specialists trace the current popularity of acupuncture
treatment to a German study published in 2002 in the journal Fertility
and Sterility. The study, led by Dr. Wolfgang Paulus at the University
of Ulm, found that 42% of women receiving acupuncture just before and
after an assisted-reproductive therapy, such as IVF, became pregnant;
that compared with 26% of patients who got pregnant with
assisted-reproductive treatments but who received no acupuncture
Later that year, Dr. Raymond Chang and colleagues at Cornell
University's medical school in New York published a paper in the same
journal, describing several ways acupuncture might actually improve a
woman's chances of conceiving: relaxation, regulating reproductive
hormones and improving the lining of the uterus, where the embryo needs
to be implanted before it can develop.
Because of the reports, published in a prestigious journal, "some
doctors started to say, let's try it out," said Dr. Paul C. Magarelli,
a fertility specialist in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Deming Huang, an acupuncturist at Stanford University's Center for
Integrative Medicine in Palo Alto, said patient interest began to rise
about the same time. At the Stanford clinic, more women began asking
their doctors for referrals to acupuncturists. And though it's not easy
to measure the effect of popular culture on medical trends, more than a
few women may have been swayed to try acupuncture when the "Sex and the
City" character Charlotte visited an acupuncturist in an effort to get
pregnant during the show's final season.
Alice Domar, director of the Mind/Body Center for Women's Health at the
Boston IVF fertility clinic, describes efforts by physicians to
recommend acupuncture for fertility treatments as a "mini-scandal." But
even the clinic where she works is preparing to hire an acupuncturist
to add to its current mix of relaxation and confidence-building
techniques for fertility patients — a decision Domar, a psychologist,
says she struggles with as a scientist.
"With the data we have right now, one cannot say that acupuncture
increases pregnancy rates," Domar said. Western studies on the topic
have so far produced inconsistent results, making it impossible, she
said, for experts to draw definitive conclusions.
Early studies on the subject suggested acupuncture might increase blood
flow to the uterus — which would improve the chances of a pregnancy
taking hold — but later research refuted this.
Studies led by Magarelli, the Colorado specialist, suggested
acupuncture increased pregnancy rates in patients who doctors had
determined had little hope of getting pregnant. He and colleague Diane
Cridennda, a licensed Colorado Springs acupuncturist, also showed that
women who received acupuncture had more "take-home babies." That is,
they were less likely to lose pregnancies to miscarriage or embryos
that failed to take hold in the uterus.
But like the German study results, Magarelli's findings have been
faulted for failing to rule out psychological or psychosomatic effects
of the treatment. Patients who received a fake treatment might have
responded to the treatment as if it were truly effective simply because
they believed it was — a phenomenon known as the placebo effect.
Paulus addressed the problem in a 2003 study by comparing the effects
of acupuncture with fake or sham acupuncture, placing needles against
acupuncture points without penetrating the skin. The results showed no
difference in pregnancy rates between patients who received true
acupuncture and those who were given the sham.
Acupuncture needles, about the width of a hair, are just barely felt
when inserted, making it difficult to come up with a good sham
treatment to help rule out the placebo effect. As Domar put it, "If
patients are getting pricked with a needle, they know it."
It's hard to study acupuncture for other reasons too. Treatment
regimens have varied from one study to the next. A study performed by
researchers at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Camden, N.J.,
found no effects of acupuncture on pregnancy rates — but their patients
had just one acupuncture session, whereas other studies used two or
To rule out the effects of other aspects of the treatment, Western
researchers often trim acupuncture down to its simplest element:
needles. But acupuncturists don't simply insert needles; most take a
whole-body approach, asking broad questions about patient history,
making recommendations about nutrition and stress management and
prescribing herbal remedies.
Researchers here and in Europe hope to eventually shed light on whether
acupuncture is truly beneficial for women trying to get pregnant. For
now, however, doctors face a conundrum: Should they recommend an
unproven treatment, discourage such treatment or take no stance at all,
said Dr. James Dillard, of the Rosenthal Center for Complementary and
Alternative Medicine at Columbia University.
Because acupuncture is considered relatively safe, Dillard said,
more fertility doctors are deciding that it's OK to add it to the mix.
"It's a big black-and-white outcome; you're either pregnant or you're
not," he said. "If it turns out it's just the placebo effect, who
Many also say evidence that acupuncture relaxes patients is
sufficient to recommend it, given the stress of dealing with
infertility. In fact, women undergoing infertility treatments face
stress levels on par with those of women coping with chronic illnesses
such as heart disease and cancer, according to the American Society for
But skeptics like Domar feel it may still be too soon to recommend the
treatment. "Patients are not going for acupuncture to feel good;
they're going for acupuncture to get pregnant. And they're spending
thousands of dollars for it. It's a dilemma."
Now pregnant, Jackie Apuzzo is still undergoing acupuncture treatment,
although her therapy has changed: no more herbs and fewer needles in
different locations. Her baby is due in December.
Reflecting on the trials of the last several years, Apuzzo said the
best thing about acupuncture was that it saved her from a second
stressful IVF cycle, which she had planned for this month. "I'm glad we
don't have to go through that again," Apuzzo said. "I just wish that I
had considered the alternatives before jumping into the big guns."
July 4, 2005