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.