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Acupuncture Enhances IVF

By Sara Calabro

Over Memorial Day weekend, singer Céline Dion became the best-known member of a fast-growing club: women who use acupuncture to improve their chances of having a baby. As research and success stories accumulate in its favor, infertility acupuncture is becoming an increasingly popular specialty.

AcuTake recently spoke with one such specialist, Caroline Radice, a New York City acupuncturist who has been helping women get pregnant for over 15 years.

Radice’s thorough understanding of both mainstream-Western and traditional-Chinese physiology informs acupuncture treatments that enable the best of both medicines. Working in coordination with OB/GYN physicians, Radice treats women (and men) throughout all stages of pregnancy.

AcuTake: Are most of your patients taking fertility drugs and/or pursuing IVF at the same time that they’re seeing you for acupuncture?

Caroline Radice: It’s about fifty-fifty. Half are, and half are opting to forego or are unable to utilize Western treatments. Some women come in with the intention of preparing themselves to get pregnant. For example, someone might want to go off the pill and prepare her body to conceive in a year. Other women come for treatments in the middle of the IVF process. And many—the majority actually—continue coming once they get pregnant. So I see women throughout the whole spectrum.

Grossly overstating it, fertility medications work by regulating or inducing ovulation. Physiologically, does acupuncture essentially mimic that process?

There are many stages involved with conception and pregnancy, so there are a number of things that need to go right. Fertility drugs serve many purposes. Some put you into a state of super ovulation: In a normal menstrual cycle, the ovary has one dominant follicle and prepares to only release that one, whereas in a medicated cycle, the feedback from the ovary that would normally say “stop” is blocked, so multiple follicles can grow and be released. The theory is that the more follicles you produce, the more likely you are, either through insemination or in-vitro, to conceive.

Like fertility drugs, acupuncture works on a number of different levels. It helps induce ovulation. It helps increase the endometrial lining of the uterus. In addition, it provides a lot of mental support to women going through this process. Trying to get pregnant can be an emotional roller coaster. Acupuncture modulates the body’s natural endorphin release, so it helps the body and mind relax. This creates a more hospitable environment for the zygote to proliferate.

Do you ever encourage women to stop taking their fertility medications?

No. The two medicines work infinitely better together than alone. They are synergistic—used in conjunction, they produce a higher success rate of pregnancy in many women. I have patients who, prior to coming to acupuncture, had been through several IVF cycles with poor results. Then they start getting acupuncture and they do much better. The same goes for women who were trying to get pregnant with acupuncture alone. I have success with these women too, but sometimes the combination is required. The two approaches have much to offer each other.

Once a woman successfully gets pregnant, what does the acupuncture address?

The majority of women who use acupuncture to bolster fertility have had a hard time getting pregnant in the past. So understandably, there is a lot of nervousness about miscarriage. Acupuncture can’t make an unviable pregnancy into a viable one, but it can manage the risk of miscarriage by making the woman as strong as possible. So as a rule, I usually see women throughout the first trimester on a weekly basis, until week thirteen. During this time we’ll focus on miscarriage prevention, as well as morning sickness, headaches, insomnia, or whatever other early-stage symptoms they are having. Once they’re out of the first trimester, we often move to a once-a-month schedule. As they get closer to delivery, acupuncture can help with labor prep, with things like relaxing the pelvic ligaments, promoting circulation to the uterus, and just generally helping them to relax and reduce some of the anxiety associated with childbirth.

Do you coordinate care with Western gynecologists?

I cross-refer with a few different OB/GYNs. One practice sends me their patients with breech babies. Beyond an external cephalic version, which has its own risks, there is little Western medicine can do for breeches. Acupuncture for breech can be very effective. I’d estimate I have success in about 60 percent of breech cases. There is no downside, as long as you follow the normal contraindications for turning breech babies. Even for women who do not successfully turn with acupuncture, it tends to make the external version easier.

Generally, have you found gynecology to be a receptive specialty to acupuncture?

Gynecology is one of the most receptive. Partly because Western medicine has measured a lot of things that directly affect gynecological issues, so it fits that model a little better than some other acupuncture specialties. Research has measured how acupuncture affects neurotransmitter release, blood circulation and hormone release. All of these things play a role in imperfect gynecology, of which most women have some form. The receptivity also can be attributed to the fact that gynecological conditions clearly respond well to acupuncture. OB/GYNs see those results in their patients.

Other than infertility, what gynecologic conditions is acupuncture especially effective for?

Acupuncture is really good at inducing ovulation. It’s also great for building uterine lining, so for women with scanty periods or amenorrhea. It’s good for any of the symptoms associated with PMS, such as breast distension, bloating, moodiness or constipation—any symptoms that suggest things are “stuck,” meaning that circulation is not moving efficiently. Acupuncture also is incredibly effective for alleviating menopause symptoms in some women. The change in hormones during menopause creates such an imbalance, so if you can modulate that imbalance, it makes the transition a lot easier. It can make a massive difference in quality of life.

What is your background? How did you become an acupuncturist?

I went to college with the intention of going to medical school. I was on a premed track at Boston University, but while there, I found that medicine wasn’t being practiced how I wanted to practice it. It was my great fortune that when I was doing counseling work for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, I was exposed to the department’s acupuncture clinic for substance abusers. It was one of those light-bulb moments. For me, acupuncture seemed closer to what medicine should be. Specifically, I was drawn to the emphasis on prevention. Acupuncture comes from a tradition that asks, “How can we correct our lifestyles so that we can avoid getting to the point of needing drastic interventions?” That made sense to me.

My specialization in gynecology, and specifically infertility, was another happy accident. When I went to acupuncture school in San Francisco, at American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, in the early 1990s, there were very small classes at that time. I was lucky enough to be mentored in this setting by Lifang Liang, a renowned Chinese gynecologist who specializes in obstetrics and infertility. Dr. Liang had come to the United States to study acupuncture’s effect on in-vitro fertilization. I was very fortunate to have these opportunities come to me. Looking back to when I first started studying medicine, never in a million years would I have imagined that I’d become an acupuncturist.

Featured photo by Sara Calabro
Photo of Caroline Radice courtesy of Caroline Radice

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