It’s a story all too familiar to young couples today: Two people who have lived a relatively healthy lifestyle decide to have a baby, but after months of trying, they’re still unable to conceive. Whatever the reason, more than 3 million couples suffer from infertility, according to the American Pregnancy Association. These couples often undergo assistive reproduction techniques like in vitro fertilization (IVF), but more and more are turning to holistic alternatives or, more specifically, to acupuncture.
Acupuncture, which operates by the idea that energy flows through channels in the body, can help treat sexual health ailments like infertility and impotence.
Liz Carlson, acupuncturist and owner of Clarity Point Health Care, said she’s often faced with the misconception that there needs to be a “belief” in acupuncture for it to work. “There is a biochemical effect involved,” she explained. “You don’t need to believe in it or know the details of what’s going on in order for it to work.”
Carlson practices Chinese medicine with a focus on women’s health and fertility and says treating a woman’s reproductive health issue is a complex process. “Because this is holistic medicine, we really run the gamut of looking at every organ system,” she said. “We ask about digestion, sleep, her relationship with her partner, how much they have sex, lifestyle and diet. Primarily, though, it’s looking at their gynecological systems.”
Diagnosing and treating sexual issues in men is approached in a similar fashion. According to Carlson, “There’s just so much less to talk about [with men] because their reproductive systems are less complex than women’s. But because of that, there’s a lot less that can go wrong.” She said she works with male clients who suffer from a range of sexual issues, from fertility problems to impotence.
Carlson said that her number of male clients has increased—often at the urging of their wives. “Over time, I have seen more men come to me, and I think higher numbers of men are starting to use alternative medicine,” she said.
Acupuncturist Arya Nielsen, who works at the Continuum Center for Health and Healing, said the number of male clients—which she said makes up about 40 percent of her clients—hasn’t increased in her 34 years in acupuncture, but that their reasons for seeking Chinese medical help have changed. “Often, there’s the idea that acupuncture only treats pain, so I see men who come first seeking relief from pain. Then, when they learn that it can help treat dysfunctions like impotence, they seek treatment for that issue too.”
Carlson said alternative and Western medicine practices can be used together to complement one another. “I use Western diagnoses, even though Chinese medicine technically doesn’t incorporate them,” she said. “But it really helps to know a client’s health issues, like whether he has a low sperm count, for example. I think that’s what our world is moving toward: the integration of all kinds of medicine.”
The Continuum Center is a practice that aims for such integration. Nielsen doesn’t use stereotypical Western medical techniques, but said she is always conscious of patients’ Western medical care. “When you’re working in the Western context, you have to be cognizant of what that person’s medical history is, like what medicines he or she has been prescribed.”
Acupuncture’s greatest benefit may be its perceived absence of negative side effects. Western medicine often heals by using prescription medication, which can leave patients with side effects ranging from the relatively mild (think nausea or drowsiness) to the blatantly dangerous— such as ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, a side effect sometimes caused by IVF). There is no significant downside, however, with acupuncture. “Occasionally there may be some slight bruising, but the bruises are more superficial than painful,” Carlson said.
The low risks associated with Chinese medicine make it a pretty safe bet for those suffering from a sexual health issue. But Carlson notes that it’s important for clients to realize the underlying cause of their problems. “The thing about infertility is that often, it’s a symptom of a problem, it isn’t the problem itself.”