Acupuncture ‘helps women fall pregnant’: the Sun has got this badly wrong

Does acupuncture help women get pregnant? According to a recent article in the Sun online, the answer to this question is yes, most definitely.

The paper even boldly stated that acupuncture ‘doubles the chances of a woman falling pregnant compared to the medication’ and then continued much in the same vein, praising the value of acupuncture in no uncertain terms:

[Acupuncture] was compared to popular drugs used to boost ovulation with scientists finding acupuncture increased the chance of pregnancy to 43.3 per cent compared to 20 per cent through the medication.

Dr Zhiguang Hu, who led the research conducted at the Mawangdui Hospital of Hunan Province in China, said: ‘One important mechanism responsible for the fertility treatment success with acupuncture is hormonal regulation.

‘And the study confirms that acupuncture normalises prolactin levels more rapidly than receiving fertility medications.’

The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Acupuncture, examined 60 female patients who were struggling to conceive due to hyperprolactinemia, a condition where there are higher levels of the hormone prolactin than normal in the blood…

Women who cannot have children often get exceedingly desperate and are therefore prone to try any method that promises help. I am sure that an article like this gives a great boost to the acupuncture industry in Britain and elsewhere. If a relatively simple intervention like acupuncture can do the trick, why not?

But are the findings reported in the Sun credible? After reading the article carefully, my alarm bells were ringing loud and clear, and I felt I needed to find out. What I discovered was far from reassuring.

The first surprise was that I could not find any reference to a ‘Journal of Clinical Acupuncture. No publication with this name is listed in Medline, and various other searches were equally unsuccessful. I did find a journal called International Journal of Clinical Acupuncture, but in its pages I was unable to locate the article in question.

What is more, I also could not find anything about a Dr Zhiguang Hu from the the Mawangdui Hospital of Hunan Province in China. And crucially, I could not find any trace of the study referred to in the Sun article.

Yes, that is puzzling but it does not necessarily mean a lot. However, it did mean that I had very little to go on when trying to assess the validity of the actual trial. All the information I had was that 60 women suffering from hyperprolactinemia, a hormonal unbalance that can prevent pregnancies, with an unfulfilled pregnancy wish were treated either with acupuncture or with conventional drugs. A significantly larger proportion of the acupuncture-treated patients got pregnant. From that I cannot conclude much. Nevertheless, this information allows me to make the following three points:

— The study was too small to allow far-reaching conclusions such as those reported by the Sun.

— Even if the study had been rigorous and its findings valid, one would still need independent replications before making optimistic statements.

We know from several investigations that perilously close to 100 per cent of Chinese acupuncture trials report positive results, no matter what condition is being treated. This means that we have to take such publications with more than a little pinch of salt.

Even if a couple of sound replications were available, the Sun would still have misreported this study very badly. Stating that it shows that acupuncture ‘doubles the chances of a woman falling pregnant compared to the medication’ is simply not true.

All that trial might possibly reveal is that a specific sub-set of women who have difficulties getting pregnant, namely those suffering from hyperprolactinemia, might benefit. The difference between these two statements should be clear to any responsible journalist.

A decent newspaper article might also have included a little background research on the subject of acupuncture as a treatment of sub-fertility. There are lots of studies of acupuncture and assisted conception. However, they do not apply here, since the women in our trial had no embryo transfer or other assistance. There is also some previous research on acupuncture for unassisted conception. Here are the crucial bits of the conclusions of two recent reviews summarising this evidence:

‘Well-designed, multi-centre, prospective randomised controlled studies are still needed to provide more reliable and valid scientific evidence’ on the efficacy of acupuncture for female infertility.

Although acupuncture has gained increasing popularity in the management of sub-fertility, its effectiveness has remained controversial.

Responsible journalism might therefore have spotted that the assumption of acupuncture doubling the chances of a woman falling pregnant is a trifle far-fetched, to say the least. There is quite simply no good evidence to back up such a broad claim.

If I were flippant, I would say that a woman’s best chance of getting pregnant after acupuncture is to sleep with her acupuncturist. But let’s not go there — let’s be more constructive and conclude that poor health journalism is sadly prevalent when it comes to alternative therapies and can do a lot of damage. False hopes will lead to bitter disappointments and more human suffering.

Moreover, bogus treatments will inevitably be a drain on patients’ finances.

Health writers and editors must be aware of their responsibility and stop writing promotional nonsense about acupuncture or any other subject. Desperate patients deserve better than my somewhat doubtful humour and even more doubtful advice from health writers.

Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor at the University of Exeter, is the author of A Scientist in Wonderland and the awardee of the John Maddox Prize 2015 for standing up for science. He blogs at edzardernst.com.


  • Laura J

    Accupuncture is a great idea. It has helped for so many ailments and getting and staying pregnant. How nice it would be if a physician had the east & the west training to benefit his or her patients. For my fertility route, I went to a dr who found out about the MTFR gene. I just needed the enzyme to help process folic acid. I had my last baby, now 6 months old at 45. Yes it can be done at my age. Women are healthier now and we are living longer.

    • Paul Lott

      Undeniable proof.

    • So are you saying your conception had nothing to do with acupuncture?

    • So it had nothing to do with acupuncture?

      • Laura J

        My case was different. I needed more folic acid. the Dr. I go to has helped so many women with fertility & had babies.

        • So are you saying that it was noting to do with acupuncture but that your GP prescribed something to help with your folic acid and it was that which helped?

          • Laura J

            Yes I could not process folic acid properly. I needed an extra enzyme with my folic acid prescription so it would prevent clotting in the blood. I’ve never tried acupuncture but other women have testimonials it worked for them when every other option has failed.

          • Yet the article above is all about the unevidenced nonsense of acupuncture for fertility being spread by The Sun.

          • Laura J

            Yeah I know. Just something to write on. The Dr. I go to swears acupuncture is helping her patients. So many variables and whatever works. Funny these articles just come out for the interest of commentors. Unfortunately not all insurances pay for acupuncture.

          • Is she a medical doctor or a an acupuncturist?

            But of course the Dr swears it helps – reminds me of the quote by the American author Upton Sinclair:

            “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

          • Laura J

            Yes she is a medical Doctor. She specializes in the thyroid and hormone function. Sorry yes she is. Her staff does the acupuncture.

          • Just to be clear, are you saying she is registered with a licence to practice with the General Medical Council?

          • Laura J

            yes

          • Good to hear that, but still worrying.

          • Laura J

            Why?

          • Why is it worrying? Because she’s prescribing treatments for which there is not a jot of good evidence they have any specific effects over placebo.

            You might find this interesting:

            Colquhoun D, Novella SP. Acupuncture Is Theatrical Placebo. Anesth Analg 2013;116:1360–3. doi:10.1213/ANE.0b013e31828f2d5e

            http://www.anesthesia-analgesia.org/content/116/6/1360

          • Laura J

            I’d rather go to a good dr. than someone that doesn’t think OUTSiDE the box. You also need to think OUTSIDE the box, because many of these “quack” things are actually working for many people who would rather avoid meds and or surgery!

          • What box?

          • Laura J

            heh your own.

          • So, you think you know what my ‘box’ is? Not that it’s relevant, of course, but pray tell.

          • Laura J

            There is such a thing as integrated Doctor, and to be clear, most patients would rather see them than being prescribed a pill for a quick fix, or surgery when it’s not necessary. In the case of women getting pregnant with acupuncture, I have seen it happen. An integrated Dr. will find the cause of the problem. The fact is mainstream drs. are losing money because smart patients have to be their own advocates and the benefits outweigh all. Going to plant pansies now…

          • An integrated doctor? One who mixes in unevidenced nonsense and hopes for the best?

          • Laura J

            Nope they actually have a license and go to med school! And they know the evidence, as I correspond to one well known! That’s why people actually are tired of feeling like crap, and pills don’t work. Smart patients choose them because they work. I’m having too much fun stargazing. Should try it, great night. Stay sick, ok?

          • So, where’s this evidence, then?

          • Laura J

            maybe you should ask him 🙂

          • You were making the claims: why should you expect me to go and find your evidence?

          • Laura J

            kfunk you suck of having no idea what the heck is going on. Alan, do your homework. You are a big boy. Not going to spoon feed you.

          • ROFL! If you can’t back up your claims, then just admit it.

          • Laura J

            lazy bones

          • I have nothing to do here – you make the claims, you provide the evidence. If it was any other way, anyone could make whatever ridiculous claims they liked…

          • Laura J

            Good find a corn maze and be with your family.

          • Is that supposed to be some kind of insult where you come from? Quaint.

            Still no good evidence, though, I see…

          • Laura J

            don’t give a flying pig what you think. Go f yourself.

          • Tsk, tsk.

          • Laura J

            So British I see, broke away from the UN. Know all I need to know. Humanist, hm.

          • Laura J said:

            “So British I see, broke away from the UN.”

            What on earth are you on about?

            You don’t think the UK is part of the UN? Really?

          • kfunk937

            Wow, a tone troll is fractally wrong. Charming, too. Aren’t you impressed? lol

          • What they’ll do when they can’t provide good evidence…

          • kfunk937

            They’ll leap o’er tall buildings (and a pond, mebbe). Am I the only one struck by the fact that she claims her doctor is registered with the GMC, yet thinks that the UK withdrew from the UN? That’s a keeper, when it comes to credibility. (Although it may’ve been a typo, I rather doubt it.)

          • Laura J

            YOU SUCK like a pig in heat, KFunk. Thank GOD the UK got their country back from the EU. Yup you are stupid lupine.

          • ROFL!

          • YOU SUCK like a pig in heat, KFunk. Thank GOD the UK got their country back from the EU. Yup you are stupid lupine.

            Wow… You are really awful at this aren’t you?

            The initial “What on earth are you on about?” response was at the fact you claimed “British” was leaving the UN, not the EU. It wasn’t until you copy and pasted some one else’s words that the mention of the EU got into your posts. And you don’t even to be aware of that transition.

            Also, real mature response. Name calling rather than taking the higher ground.

            I’m confused why you would call @kfunk937:disqus a stupid wolf though. You’d just accused them of being like a pig. That would be porcine. I’m guessing you can’t keep your *cines straight.

          • kfunk937

            I was–almost, but not quite–tempted to press her on that, myself.

            Which is it??? Pig or wolf??? Porcine or lupine??? Make up yo’ dam’ mind, Laura J. (Besides I hadn’t even been involved in that conversation, save to listen.) ROFL.

          • shay simmons

            But at least you’re chic, according to LauraJ. Must be the hat.

          • Laura J

            She’s just a stupid chic. Doesn’t give a whim what topic we’re on.

          • Laura J

            EU. That’s the news.

          • Nope. You’re still wrong.

          • Laura J

            Brexit? The United Kingdom (UK) intends to withdraw from the European Union (EU), a process commonly known as Brexit, as a result of a June 2016 referendum in which 51.9% voted to leave the EU. The separation process is complex, causing political and economic changes for the UK and other countries. On 2 October 2016, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced she would trigger Article 50 by the end of March 2017 which would make the UK set to leave the EU by the end of March 2019.[1] The terms for withdrawal have not been established; however May has promised a bill to remove the European Communities Act 1972 from the statute book and to transfer existing EU laws into the UK domestic law.[2] In the meantime, the UK remains a full member of the European Union. The term “Brexit” is a portmanteau of the words “British” and “exit”.

            That’s what I mean. your friends following you suck too.

          • Oh dear. Comprehension fail.

            But this is a nice diversion from you substantiating your claims, isn’t it?

          • Laura J

            A Humanist Code of Ethics

            Do no harm to the earth, she is your mother.
            Being is more important than having.
            Never promote yourself at another’s expense.
            Hold life sacred; treat it with reverence.
            Allow each person the digity of his or her labor.
            Open your home to the wayfarer.
            Be ready to receive your deepest dreams;
            sometimes they are the speech of unblighted conscience.
            Always make restitutions to the ones you have harmed.
            Never think less of yourself than you are.
            Never think that you are more than another.

            Arthur Dobrin, Professor of Humanities

          • Laura J said:

            “A Humanist Code of Ethics”

            LOL! Where on earth did you dig that up from (and why)?

            Still no evidence, though, I see?

          • Laura J

            typical athiest

          • ROFL!

          • John

            Why is it that people like you that are unable to provide evidence resort to name calling,lack of Education perhaps?

          • Laura J

            You bray like a Walmart employee.

          • John

            Is that how your parents brought you up?Besides I do not understand your comment as I do not know what Walmart is.

          • Laura J

            heh. Brush up on your English.

          • John

            Might help if you brushed up on yours.And you might also consider brushing up on your manners.

          • Laura J

            Then you must know Trump! That’s America!

          • John

            You actually sound like you may be related to Trump and as your friend Suz would say,”stay on topic”

          • Laura J

            YOu actually sound like a windbag

          • John

            I have been taking lessons from you.

          • Laura J

            I need to give her a call to get my levels checked again soon. Lots of Dr. visits for our son this month. Heart, ears etc.

          • Mortene3

            Folic acid is recommended for all women trying to be pregnant in order to avoid central nervous malformations in the baby. This recommendation has nothing to do with fertility problems.

          • Laura J

            folic acid is synthetic, while folate is from foods. It was because of mthr gene. Great fertility boost, too for egg quality.