One of the oldest and most comprehensive aspects of Chinese medicine is gynecology, and Acupuncture can be key element in fertility treatments and supporting healthy pregnancies.
The female reproductive system is complex, and the medicine rose to the occasion to create its first “specialty.” In contemporary times, with the rise of the western medical specialty of infertility treatment, Chinese medicine has been well equipped to bring its body of knowledge to this issue. Ideally the Chinese medicine practitioner likes to treat women early on in the fertility process with herbs and acupuncture to “fertilize the garden” gradually and thoroughly over several months. For younger women with good ovarian reserve this is often enough for fertility to occur. However, the versatility of the medicine allows for useful intervention at any stage of the fertility process, whether it be several months of herbs and acupuncture to see if any positive changes can occur without western medicine, all the way up to the last minute scenario of acupuncture before and after egg retrieval and implantation. For patients who are in an IVF or IUI protocol herbs are not typically given in deference to western medical physicians, but the beauty of the acupuncture protocols is that they are completely compatible with western medical protocols, and can be administered at all stages of the fertility process. All of the reproductive endocrinologists in the greater Baltimore area are familiar with patients’ interest and participation in Chinese medicine and some even encourage it as an adjunct. Much neglected in fertility issues is the role of the male partner. We strongly encourage the male partner to be assessed and treated, even if a western diagnosis does not deem it “necessary” or “treatable.” Chinese medicine has developed protocols to enhance male reproductive health, and with fertility every possible advantage should be sought. At the very least your Chinese medicine practitioner will want to do an assessment of the male partner to see if any improvements can be made with our modality.
Acupuncture and The Fertility Program
The main focus of the fertility program is of course to achieve successful conception. We have to consider what “successful” means. How does a woman produce the healthiest embryos? Western fertility drugs are designed to take over and manipulate the woman’s reproductive system over several months to regulate ovulation and produce follicles in a (hopefully) predictable way. During this process drugs such as Clomid are given to strongly stimulate the ovaries. Ideally your Chinese medicine practitioner would like several months to do acupuncture and administer herbs to strengthen and tonify the entire body. To make an analogy, a garden can be fertilized using strong chemical fertilizers to promote rapid production of plants as opposed to adding natural amendments such as compost and manure to the soil. We prefer to take a bit more time and fertilize the garden naturally to see if the body responds on its own, maybe even without western medical intervention. Also we think that the embryos produced under these circumstances are healthier. Of course some women are of an age or have a condition (e.g. PCOS) which causes ovarian reserve to be low, and therefore pharmaceutical stimulation may be necessary. But in these cases also acupuncture and herbs before IVF and IUI and just acupuncture during these protocols will enhance a woman’s own natural fertility. In our view the male partner should absolutely be assessed to determine from a Chinese medicine perspective if some enhancement of his fertility is achievable. The western medical view of the male’s role is limited to an analysis of sperm count, motility and morphology. However, we take a much broader view of the male partner’s status and its a rare individual who has no room for improvement. The minimal acupuncture intervention is based on a German study (the Paulus protocols) in which acupuncture is done immediately before and after egg transfer. Even though we prefer to do much more, even this protocol alone had a positive effect on fertility.
Acupuncture is an effective tool during pregnancy for many conditions, the most common being so called “morning sickness.”
Nausea in early pregnancy can actually occur at any time of day. It’s cause is not well understood but is probably related to hormonal changes which level off by the end of the first trimester, so this is usually an early pregnancy issue. Acupuncture treats this condition very effectively in most cases. As the baby grows the spine and ligaments shift to accommodate the changes and back pain can occur. Later in the pregnancy as the baby grows larger and things get more crowded and sciatica can occur. Acupuncture is very effective for back pain and sciatica in these cases. A condition known as preeclampsia can occur later in the pregnancy, in which blood pressure can spike and painful swelling at the joints can develop. Acupuncture can help regulate the blood pressure and is very effective at treating the tendinitis that can occur from the swelling at the wrist. Many women prefer to err on the side of caution and take fewer medications during pregnancy (always of course after checking with their doctor). Here acupuncture can have a role to play in addressing all pre-existing health problems the mother may have had before pregnancy. A good example of this is chronic migraine, which is very effectively treated by acupuncture. Generally speaking pregnancy can cause general fatigue. It’s hard work growing a baby! Acupuncture treatments simultaneously soothe and invigorate the expectant mother.
Other Natural Treatments
Needles are only one tool in our Chinese medicine kit. Another tool is moxa, a variety of artemesia. This herb is dried and then burned to stimulate acupuncture points with heat. If the expectant mother has a baby with breech presentation (head down) using moxa on a specific point on the little toe can cause the fetus to invert, provided that it’s not too big or too small. A great benefit of this technique is that if there is an issue with the umbilical cord or some other mechanical issue which would make it unsafe for the baby to flip, it simply won’t happen. Acupuncture always works to promote the best interest of a given organism in all circumstances. Acupuncture has been shown to facilitate the onset of labor in mothers who are full term. Certain points are avoided during pregnancy because of their stimulating effects on the uterus. However, once the baby has reached full size and maturation these points can be called upon to move the process along.
After Baby Arrives: Ongoing Treatments and Support
The postpartum condition involves many patterns that are obvious to a Chinese medicine practitioner but seem to have no specific correlation in the western medical view. The main pattern is called “Blood Deficiency”, and obviously is caused by the loss of blood during the birth process. But even when large amounts of blood are not lost we think the birth process in and of itself involves the loss of a type of vital energy (“Jing”) which must be addressed if the mother is to remain healthy. Post partum depression is likely the result of this Chinese medicine pattern of Blood Deficiency. This type of depression can be severe, even dangerous, and could perhaps more often be avoided, or at least lessened, with treatment by acupuncture, moxa and herbs. The post postpartum state generally involves patterns of “deficiency”. Deficiency patterns are best treated with two other tools in our kit – moxa, as mentioned previously, and herbs. It is a given in traditional Chinese culture that all women will take certain Chinese herbs after having a baby. Acupuncture alone is not usually enough for this period, though of course the relaxation and well being that acupuncture provides is very welcome! Two other issues postpartum that lead to deficiency are the inevitable sleep deprivation of the new mother and breast feeding. There is a saying on Chinese medicine that “breast milk and blood come from the same source.” This saying emphasizes the need for the new mother to seek support and supplementation to nourish herself while she is nourishing the new, growing life she is now responsible for.