Goal Is Also to Learn Why Acupuncture May Increase Pregnancy Rate
Infertility specialists at the University of Maryland are investigating whether acupuncture can improve pregnancy rates for couples undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF), a process that involves fertilizing a woman’s egg with sperm outside the womb and then implanting the embryo in the woman’s uterus. Doctors plan to enroll 60 women over a three-year period for a pilot study, which is a collaboration between the University of Maryland Center for Integrative Medicine and the University of Maryland Center for Assisted Reproductive Technology.
“Acupuncture is thought to be helpful in boosting the success rate of IVF, but our study will be the first to test the theory in a placebo-controlled, double-blind way. Our goal is to see if acupuncture really does work, and if so, why,” explains co-investigator Laurence Udoff, M.D., assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and an infertility specialist at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
Dr. Udoff adds, “Acupuncture has been used for centuries in China to regulate the female reproductive system. In recent years, many couples in the United States and Europe have turned to acupuncture as a complementary treatment for infertility.”
The study will include women who are already seeking standard IVF treatment, paid for by their insurer or by the patients themselves. During the study, they will receive four free acupuncture treatments during the IVF cycle: the first at the beginning of the cycle, another just before egg retrieval, the third just before embryo transfer and the last after the embryo is transferred.
The women will be divided into two groups. One group will receive traditional Chinese acupuncture; the other group will receive what is called “sham” acupuncture.
“Sham acupuncture involves placing acupuncture needles in a different place than we normally would to enhance IVF treatment,” says principal investigator Grant Zhang, Ph.D., a licensed acupuncturist and an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “Also, the needles also do not penetrate the skin as deeply when we perform the sham procedure. To ensure that the participants cannot tell if they are getting the real or the sham acupuncture, we will only enroll women who have never had acupuncture.”
Some European studies of acupuncture and IVF have shown a positive effect on pregnancy rates, but these studies were not as rigorous because of the lack of a sham control group. Acupuncture studies can be challenging because participants obviously know when they are being stuck with needles and when they are not. A credible sham procedure is needed to ensure the validity of the results. Neither the participants nor the researchers in the University of Maryland study will know which women are receiving the real acupuncture.
“And if we see a positive effect, we also want to understand why it’s happening,” adds Dr. Udoff. “There could be a host of mechanisms at work including physiological and psychological factors.”
As part of the study, researchers will be using ultrasound to look at blood flow to the ovaries and the uterus. The participants will also fill out questionnaires to measure stress levels.
Study participants who receive the sham acupuncture and do not get pregnant during the IVF cycle will be offered real acupuncture at no charge during a later IVF cycle. The study is funded by a $400,000 grant from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of National Institutes of Health.
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