Acupuncture has been a mainstay of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for thousands of years, including as treatment in fertility and gynecological disorders. In North America, acupuncture is mainly used in tandem with other treatments.
How does acupuncture work?
In TCM, hair-thin needles are inserted into specific points in the body called acupuncture points. These points are located along channels (or meridians) on the body which are linked to the body’s nervous system. TCM holds that there are 365 common acupuncture points on 20 meridians of the human body. When acupuncture needles are inserted, they activate nearby nerve bundles causing the release and activation of compounds called neuropeptides. Neuropeptides send signals to the spinal cord to target specific organs and, depending on the location and combination of the points used, acupuncture can provide benefits like pain-relief, a decrease in high blood pressure, slowing the release of stress hormones and inciting the release of serotonin.
How does acupuncture help an embryo transfer?
The Paulus Protocol is a specific acupuncture treatment specific for embryo transfer. It is made up of two separate treatment sessions: one about a half-hour before an embryo transfer and one a half-hour after. In one of the earliest studies, the Paulus protocol was shown to improve clinical pregnancy rates from 26.3 percent (those who didn’t get acupuncture) to 42.5 percent. Points used in the Paulus Protocol specifically affect the reproductive system, improving blood and energy flow to the uterus. Other points used in this protocol calm the mind and induce a state of relaxation.
Studies have found that acupuncture treatment for an embryo transfer can:
- Decrease anxiety associated with IVF
- Decrease stress before and after embryo transfer
- Increase clinical and ongoing pregnancy rates, as found in a 2006 study and in a 2021 systematic review of 16 studies
What to expect in an acupuncture session
Acupuncture needles are hair-thin and solid, unlike needles for blood draws or injections, so the sensation is quite different and, in many cases, painless. With acupuncture needles you might notice a quick poke or tap as the needle passes through the skin, but beyond that, any sharpness disappears.
Needles are inserted anywhere from a few millimetres to three centimeters deep, depending where on the body the point is located. The most common sensations with acupuncture are heaviness, warmth, light pressure and tingling. Treatment sessions are between 25 to 35 minutes long and can be combined with a relaxation component such as guided meditation or music therapy.
The specifics about acupuncture for pre- and post-embryo transfer
Only about 12 to 14 needles in total are used in a fertility treatment session, and the most common areas treated include the lower legs and feet, lower abdomen (from belly button to pubic bone), forearm and back of the hands, top of the head and ears. For day-of embryo transfer acupuncture treatment, some clinics offer their own on-site acupuncture services, while other IVF clinics might allow your naturopath or acupuncturist to come in to give you treatment. You’ll want to enquire early on about this to find out what your options are with your specific clinic. For your embryo transfer, adding pre- and post-transfer acupuncture is a great way to bookend your procedure. It can help reduce stress and anxiety and may increase your chances of a positive pregnancy.
The wonderful thing about acupuncture is how relaxing it can be. It’s the perfect way to give yourself a break: laying down, your body feeling heavy, unable to check emails or messages. It’s a full body pause that many of us crave, especially in times of high stress.