Acupuncture seems to help some women because it improves circulation to the ovaries — which makes for healthier eggs — and to the uterus, which increases the chances that the lining will be strong enough to hold those eggs to full-term.
"Acupuncture provides better circulation and better blood flow to the womb. It will give a better chance for the eggs to be nourished and therefore carried."
There's also the fact that acupuncture can be a stress-reliever during an emotional time.
"Trying to get pregnant is incredibly stressful, they're crossing their fingers. The longer they're trying to get pregnant, the worse it gets ... Part of [acupuncture's success] is simply relaxation. When the body is relaxed, all systems function better."
The Colorado study Magarelli and Cridennda presented at a conference this fall is one of a series the pair have done with acupuncture and in vitro.
That one looked at 114 patients who had a good chance of IVF being effective, some who did acupuncture and some who didn’t. It found, among other things, that there were fewer miscarriages, more pregnancies and a 7 percent higher birth rate among those who got acupuncture treatment over those who didn’t, according to Magarelli.
It piggybacked off other research the team did on 147 “poor responders” to IVF, which found that the pregnancy rate was 40 percent, with 11 percent more babies born, among those who did acupuncture with in vitro fertilization compared to those who didn’t.
In March, Magarelli and Cridennda released findings in Italy involving patients with an average prognosis for IVF success. Those yielded clear numbers that the pregnancy rate increased with acupuncture by 24 percent, according to Magarelli.
“What got us was that now we were seeing a firm trend toward getting more people pregnant,” he said.
The Colorado research seems to support some findings of two earlier studies, one in Germany by lead researcher Dr. Wolfgang E. Paulus — published in ASRM's “Fertility and Sterility” (search) in April 2002 — and one in Sweden by lead researcher Elisabet Stener-Victorin in the 1990s.
Of course, even those who believe in acupuncture concede that while the existing studies have yielded good information, there still isn't sufficient evidence, or a broad enough sample of patients tested, to call acupuncture a proven remedy.
"We are convinced, but scientifically you need proof — or so-called proof," Chang said. "There is a whole set of proof from lab experiments and animal studies to human studies, but it's very difficult to do human studies."
Schenken noted that even though there might be one set of data showing positive results, "it really needs to be corroborated, preferably with several different studies and different patient populations." For example, there can be bias when the entire study sample comes from the same clinic, or when patients know they're doing something different from usual.
Schenken said he doesn't get asked about acupuncture often, but when patients do, "we don't recommend it, but we do not discourage it."
Surrey takes a similar approach. In his opinion, the data "is not bad" on the theory that acupuncture can help when administered before IVF, but as far as acupuncture generally improving fertility or helping after the embryo transfer in IVF, "there really isn't a whole lot of data on that."
But at the very least, "there is absolutely nothing to show that it's harmful if it's done with a trained and appropriately skilled acupuncturist," he said. It's a notion that nearly everyone in the medical field — whether they believe in needles and Qi or not — seems to agree upon.
As for the couples trying to bring a child into the world — particularly through a complicated, invasive procedure like IVF— anything that helps the process along is welcome.
Meanwhile, researchers and experts in the field are excited at what they're seeing in the studies. Chang said he's currently working with NYU Medical Center on a trial that looks at IVF with and without acupuncture.
"The first time I went, I was completely terrified. My husband went with me and held my hand," she said. "I could feel the muscles in my liver jump and an electric current going through my body. It was very strange but also felt right."
She said being monitored by both her obstetrician and Koos helped reassure her about what was going on during her high-risk pregnancy.
"She would tell me things about how I was doing physically and then I would go to the doctor and he would tell me the same thing," remembers Appert, who works as a professor.
Regardless of the skeptics, Appert said she's relieved that she was finally able to have a nearly full-term baby of her own. At 4 pounds, 6 ounces, Henry has been in intensive care but otherwise is doing "fine."
"It really was a miracle," the new mom gushed. "It's one of these weird things that Western medicine can't explain."
Find out how to start your journey on Fertility Acupuncture with Mike Berkley at the Berkley Center located in New York City.