The Symptom Called "Infertility"

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CASE STUDIES

Infertility problems have become a major issue for both women and men in our times and few know that acupuncture can help them.

Maria, a 38-year-old woman, came to my office seeking acupuncture treatment to reduce her stress. She found it difficult just to keep going, she told me. The stress affected her sleep, appetite, and mood; something had to be done.

At the end of our first meeting, she thought I was joking when I told her she should know, among other things, that as acupuncture improved her general balance and energy level, it might also increase fertility. I suggested that during ovulation she should be sure to use contraceptives--unless, of course, she wanted to get pregnant.

"I can never get pregnant!" was her response. "I've never used contraceptives. And no matter what I've tried, I couldn't get pregnant."

Today, after about a year and a half of treatment, Maria is pregnant. Luckily, she is very happy about it.

Maria's disbelief when she heard that acupuncture can increase fertility is, unfortunately, a common reaction. Infertility has become a major issue for both women and men today; about one couple out of five has a problem related to infertility. Yet few know that acupuncture can help them.

For most, addressing their condition turns out to be a torturous road. Procedures are often invasive and costly, emotionally and physically draining, while the odds of success, at best, are low--between 15 and 20 percent. As one discouraged woman summed it up, "We've just been through five years of infertility hell."

Treating women who suffer from "infertility" is quite complex--and not because of the acupuncture treatment itself, which actually is relatively simple. I'll explain...

First, I need to note that in five-phase acupuncture we do not speak of "infertility," "blocked tubes," and such. We see these conditions as we do all symptoms: they are evidence of an imbalance within us--an imbalance that has reached a level where it gets our attention, through the symptom, and can be addressed. An imbalance may show up in many aspects of ourselves, in mind and spirit as well as body; acupuncture does not separate these functions. Rather, we treat the underlying imbalance. As we do, the symptoms often disappear.

Second, many women cannot get pregnant or bring a pregnancy to term because they do not live within the natural cycles of their body. Through misguided and unrealistic expectations, many women live pressured lives that distance them more and more from the natural patterns of life, including reproductive patterns. Yet, I have found that those women and men who learn about natural cycles and work with their body's rhythms to overcome fertility problems, do succeed.

"Work with natural cycles," however, sounds too simple and easy to a woman who's been told for years that she cannot become pregnant. How do you speak about following natural rhythms to someone who has been through laparoscopy, surgery for endomitriosis or removing cysts, fertility injection, in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination, or hormonal treatment? This is one of the challenges--and opportunities--of being an acupuncturist.

When a woman is "trying" to get pregnant (as patients often say they are), her life turns in a vicious cycle: the woman anxiously awaits ovulation, then anxiously waits to see if her period comes. In most cases, a woman gets so caught up in this anxious cycle that I, as her acupuncturist, have only a very narrow window of opportunity to make her reflect on her lifestyle and how it might prevent her getting pregnant. My challenge is even greater when the patient is combining acupuncture with Western medical treatment, because of the trauma she is experiencing in body, spirit, and mind.

Of course, it would be an acupuncturist's dream come true if a patient detached herself from the vicious cycle of "trying." I know this is unlikely, however, at least in the first few months of treatment. What I can do is be there for the patient, helping her cope with disappointment when, once again, her period arrives. Meanwhile, with the needles, I try to create a window of opportunity.

Sara's Story

Sara is a forty-year-old woman in her second marriage. Her present husband very much wants a child. In the past, she never wanted to get pregnant; now, she says, she wants to give a child to her husband.

At our first meeting, when Sara says she wants a baby for herself, too, I note that she seems not quite sure. Sara is very involved in her career and in her body. Her body image is crucial to her. She always sees herself as fat and is in a constant struggle to reach the weight she thinks she ought to be. She sees no connection between the fact that she continually starves her body and her inability to get pregnant. She already has gone through two surgeries to remove cysts from her ovaries.

In the physical examination, I discovered by placing my hand on different areas of the body that she was very warm everywhere with one major exception: her lower abdomen was cold as ice. As an acupuncturist, I saw a clear relationship between the cold of her "Lower Chou" (the lower abdomen), the fact that she was starving herself, and her inability to conceive. I had to ask myself, how could a fetus be nurtured in such a cold environment?

Nurturing was my focus of treatment for Sara. As I selected acupuncture points and treated her, I was mindful of her lack of awareness of the mind-body-spirit connection; and I used the names of the points to help her understand her condition. I'm often amazed at how well patients see the significance of a point name for their own lives. If they do not, I have the opportunity to stimulate discussion by asking them what the name means to them. In Sara's case, I used points such as "Earth Motivator," "Abdomen Sorrow," and "Abundant Splendor." After many treatments using points such as these, not only did her Lower Chou warm up and her energy increase and come into balance, she also came to the realization that she could not nurture anyone else before she nurtured herself.

Today, Sara has a beautiful baby boy.

Kathleen and Bob's Story

Kathleen never had what she considered a real home. As a child, she moved every couple of years to a new place. Even before she had adjusted to the new surroundings, it was time to move again. In her thirties, Kathleen began an up-and-down relationship with a man fifteen years older than she. After several separations, she eventually married this man, her current husband, whom she continues to love very much. Even with him, however, she had no place that felt like "home."

When Kathleen came for treatment, she told me she had been trying to get pregnant for the last five years. Her medical history showed a number of pregnancies that ended in miscarriage in the third or fourth month, and, several years ago, in abortion. Her husband, she told me, was not sure he wanted a baby. He was afraid of the intrusion on their relationship. He wondered what it would mean to have a baby at an older age.

I treated both Kathleen and Bob, her husband, whose medical record showed a "low sperm count."

For Bob, the fear of being a father was critical. He feared he would lose the boundaries he had worked so hard to establish with his own father, who put him down, showed him no respect, and interfered often in his son's life. Now that the relationship with his father was (at long last) calmer, Bob was not sure that he himself was ready to be a father. Fear was a major phenomenon in other areas of Bob's life, as well. For instance, he was scared that he could not adequately support Kathleen.

With Bob, I worked on the two major energy pathways that have to do with fear, fertility, conception, and boundaries: the Kidney and the Bladder meridians (the Water element). Among the specific points I chose for Bob were "Building Guest," "Door of Infants," and "Rich for the Vitals." After several treatments, Bob began to feel that he could support Kathleen and still hold his own.

A crucial issue for Kathleen was the abortion: she was sorry that she had terminated the pregnancy and had not forgiven herself. For Kathleen, as for many other women, unresolved feelings about an abortion were an obstacle to getting pregnant again.

In talking with Kathleen, I was most impressed by her sense of loss. I could easily detect the grief in her voice. The abortion, I learned, was only one of many losses in her life. In our acupuncture treatments, for the first time she acknowledged her unresolved feelings about these losses, starting in her childhood when she moved from place to place.

Kathleen's treatment focused especially on the energy pathways of the Metal element (the Colon and Lung meridians), to help her acknowledge and deal with the grief she had been carrying for so many years--to enable her to let go and move forward. Among the points I chose for her were "Support and Rush Out," "Joining of the Valleys," "Heavenly Palace," and "Greatest Role."

A couple of months after Kathleen and Bob entered treatment, she became pregnant. But their great joy was destroyed by yet another miscarriage. Then during the period after the miscarriage, Bob and Kathleen bought a house--their first.

The purchase signaled an important shift for both of them. For the first time, Bob did not let his fear stand in the way when making a major life decision. And Kathleen felt that she finally had a real home to which she could bring a baby.

Kathleen is now pregnant. The baby is due any day.

What I have discussed is just one of many approaches to infertility within acupuncture and Chinese medicine.

Of course, it would be best if those who want to become pregnant would try acupuncture treatment before using the more invasive approaches of Western medicine. Most do not. Therefore, it is important to support Western treatment with the idea that acupuncture can be an excellent enhancement.

Acupuncturists who help people with infertility know the joy of learning that the patient is pregnant. And when the phone rings and we hear "It's a girl," or "It's a boy," it is a wondrous moment--a coming together of nature, nurture, and the grace of God.

Dorit Reznek, a graduate of the Traditional Acupuncture Institute in Columbia, Maryland, maintains a private practice of acupuncture in New York City.

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By Dorit Reznek

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