Your pregnancy journey is different from that of every other woman. Ideally, it will be easy and trouble-free, but the reality is that though some women are able to conceive with little problem; others may take longer and need help in the form of medical intervention or assisted reproductive techniques. That help often involves the use of fertility medications, which can be very effective, but many women who are prescribed these medications experience side-effects that can be uncomfortable. The following is a rundown on the kinds and uses of these medication, possible side-effects, and how fertility acupuncture can be helpful in managing these side-effects.
There are several types of fertility medications, and those that promote ovulation are some of the most common. About 25% of women in reproductive years don’t ovulate regularly, and it’s extremely common for women who are undergoing assisted reproductive procedures to be prescribed ovulation drugs. They include:
- Clomid (Clomiphene) is often one of the first treatment choices to trigger ovulation.
- Dopamine agonists are used in women who have ovulation problems due to elevated levels of prolactin—a hormone that at high levels can interfere with ovulation.
- Metformin (Glucophage) is a medication that decreases insulin resistance. While insulin may seem unrelated to ovulation, women with PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) are often resistant to insulin, which can inhibit ovulation.
- Femara (Letrozole) works like Clomid to trigger ovulation. Research suggests that Femara tends to be more effective than Clomid, particularly for women with PCOS who are also obese.
- Gonadotropins are a group of hormones that are naturally secreted by the pituitary gland in your brain that affect the ovaries (and testes in men). If other treatments haven’t worked, your doctor may prescribe a follicle-stimulating hormone combined with a luteinizing hormone to promote ovulation. These medications are delivered by injection or nasal spray.
In about 10% of women, their doctor is unable to find an underlying cause of their infertility. In some cases, these medications are used to promote ovulation and help increase a woman’s chances of conceiving through carefully timed intercourse.
Medications used for IVF (In vitro fertilization)
IVF is an assisted reproductive technique that involves the removal of eggs for your doctor to fertilize in a petri dish. If one or more of the eggs grow into an embryo, your doctor can then implant them into your uterus. This procedure can involve the use of a number of medications to increase the chances of a successful procedure. They include:
- Gonadotropin antagonist hormones to prevent ovulation too early. Early ovulation decreases the risk of a successful outcome.
- Clomid or Femara to help your ovaries to release multiple eggs.
- An injection of hCG, which is a hormone to trigger ovulation. This helps your doctor control the exact timing of ovulation.
- During IVF, your doctor will likely prescribe progesterone and / or estrogen to help your uterus thicken, promote implantation and support the maintenance of pregnancy during the early stages.
Intrauterine insemination (IUI) is a procedure in which sperm is inserted directly into your uterus around the time that you are ovulating. It can increase chances of conception in cases of cervical mucus problems or sperm motility. Your doctor may prescribe ovulation medications, an ovulation trigger to control the timing, and progesterone to support early-stage pregnancy.
Acupuncture and the Side-Effects of Fertility Medications
While fertility drugs can greatly increase your chances of a positive pregnancy outcome, they’re hormones that can come with uncomfortable side-effects. The most common include:
- Breast tenderness
- Hot flashes
- Mood swings
In addition, some of these medications carry an increased risk of Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome (OHSS). This is a condition that occurs after ovulation, in which your ovaries overreact to the fertility drugs and become enlarged with fluid. Most cases of OHSS are mild and caught early, however severe cases can become a medical emergency when the fluid leaks into the abdomen or chest. The symptoms of OHSS are similar to those of other fertility drugs, however in severe cases, the symptoms may include dizziness, a rapid heartbeat, severe abdominal pain, rapid weight gain (due to fluid buildup) and shortness of breath.
It’s also important to know that taking fertility drugs can increase the chances of having multiple births (twins, triplets, etc.). This occurs for a couple of reasons. The nature of some of these medications is to stimulate your ovaries to promote the release of eggs, which often results in multiple eggs being released during a single cycle. In addition, during IVF, many doctors insert more than one embryo with the hope that at least one will implant and grow. However, in some cases more than one embryo will survive, resulting in a multiple birth.
While more and more people are becoming aware of the positive role that acupuncture can play in pregnancy outcomes, many may not know how well acupuncture can help alleviate some of the side-effects of fertility medications, especially those associated with rapid shifts in hormone levels. If you are undergoing fertility treatments, acupuncture can help manage medication side-effects in the following ways:
- Acupuncture can help with mood swings and decrease irritability, anxiety and depression. It’s well-known through research that acupuncture promotes the release of neurotransmitters that help relieve stress, level out mood swings and produce feelings of calm.
- It can help prevent and treat OHSS if it’s detected early.
- A great deal of research has documented the effectiveness of acupuncture for pain relief. This makes acupuncture a great choice for pain associated with headaches, breast tenderness and cramping from taking fertility medications.
- Acupuncture can relieve hot flashes associated with rapid changes in hormone levels from fertility medications. It works in a way similar to how it reduces hot flashes in menopausal women due to hormonal changes.
- It is also helpful in effectively treating nausea caused by fertility drugs, much in the same way it relieves morning sickness from hormonal changes during the first trimester of pregnancy.
The bottom line is that assisted fertility techniques and fertility medications can increase the chances of conception and a positive outcome for many people struggling with fertility issues. However, because these medications cause hormonal changes, they can come with some not so welcome side-effects. Acupuncture can not only play a positive role in the outcome of your pregnancy journey, but it can also help reduce the discomfort associated with taking fertility drugs. If you want to know more about how acupuncture can help you with fertility, managing assisted reproductive techniques and pregnancy, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
Dr. Jeda Boughton is a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Registered Acupuncturist in Vancouver. She is also a Registered Herbologist and the founder of BodaHealth.