Acupuncture for PCOS: can treatment improve PCOS?

Acupuncture, a traditional Chinese therapy involving the insertion of fine needles into the skin, is being explored as a symptom management option for Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal disorder common among people of reproductive age. While the exact mechanisms by which acupuncture could benefit people with PCOS remain unclear, it’s thought that the treatment may improve hormonal imbalances and insulin sensitivity, which are key issues in PCOS. Research into acupuncture as a therapeutic intervention for PCOS is progressing, with some studies suggesting potential benefits in regulating menstrual cycles and inducing ovulation. Keep on reading to learn about acupuncture for PCOS.

Key takeaways: acupuncture for PCOS

  • Acupuncture is an alternative treatment with potential benefits for people with PCOS
  • It may offer hormonal balance and improvement in menstrual regularity
  • More research is needed to understand the potential benefits of acupuncture for PCOS
  • Consulting healthcare professionals is crucial before starting acupuncture
  • Possible side effects of acupuncture for PCSO are minor
  • People with PCOS who are contemplating acupuncture as a treatment option should consult with healthcare providers for personalised advice and to ensure that acupuncture is conducted following best practice guidelines

What is PCOS?

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal disorder common among people of reproductive age. This condition has significant implications for people’s hormonal balance, fertility, and mental health.

Definition and prevalence

PCOS, or polycystic ovarian syndrome, is defined by a collection of symptoms rather than a single test. It is characterised by multiple ‘cysts’ on the ovaries and hormonal imbalances including raised insulin and testosterone levels. It affects roughly one in ten people with ovaries of childbearing age, making it the most common endocrine disorder among people assigned female at birth.

Symptoms of PCOS include irregular menstrual cyclesoligo-ovulation or anovulation (reduced or absent ovulation), and elevated levels of androgen hormones (high levels of testosterone and other male hormones), often manifesting as hirsutism (excessive hair growth, particularly facial hair), acne, or scalp hair loss (alopecia). People with PCOS may face complications such as infertility due to irregular ovulation and an increased risk of developing insulin resistance and may also notice rapid weight gain.

No single test can confirm PCOS; instead, it is diagnosed through a careful evaluation of symptoms, medical history, and test results. It’s crucial to approach PCOS as a syndrome with varying degrees of symptom severity, rather than a condition with a one-size-fits-all description.

In a similar vein, treatment should also be seen holistically. There is no ‘cure’ for PCOS, instead, it is a condition that must be managed for life. Treatment of PCOS may include medication, supplements and lifestyle changes such as nutrition tweaks, regular movement and improved sleep hygiene.

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture as a method to manage polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is a unique merging of traditional Chinese medicine with modern clinical practices in Western medicine. Various traditional treatments like acupuncture and other Chinese herbal medicine techniques are being used alongside conventional treatments for PCOS to cultivate a more holistic approach to the syndrome. But what exactly is acupuncture?

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture, a key component of traditional Chinese medicine, involves the insertion of very fine needles into specific points on the body, known as acupoints, to alleviate various health conditions. In the context of PCOS, acupuncture treatment has been suggested as a potential therapeutic option to improve symptoms and related health disturbances.

History and principles of acupuncture

The practice of acupuncture dates back thousands of years, with its principles deeply rooted in the balance of Qi (vital energy) within the body. It operates on the belief that the proper flow of Qi through the body’s meridians is essential for health. 

Acupuncture techniques

There are several techniques within acupuncture that are used to address PCOS:

  • Manual Acupuncture: Traditional needlework where manipulation is performed by hand to stimulate the acupoints.
  • Electroacupuncture: This modern variant applies small electric currents through the needles, potentially enhancing the treatment’s effectiveness for PCOS symptom management.

Studies, such as those published in reputable journals like the Cochrane Library, have examined how these methods can influence PCOS, yet the exact mechanisms remain under investigation.

Effectiveness of acupuncture for PCOS

Acupuncture is increasingly recognised in the management of PCOS, particularly for its role in promoting ovulation and improving hormonal imbalances. Research highlights its potential to enhance fertility outcomes in comparison with other treatments, yet the quality of evidence is often low and the need for further research is essential.

Impact on ovulation induction

Clinical studies indicate that acupuncture may facilitate ovulation induction in people with PCOS. Acupuncture is believed to stimulate the nervous system and influence the gonadotropin-releasing hormone, which may help normalise the LH/FSH ratio, a critical factor in ovulation induction.

Influence on hormonal balance

Acupuncture treatment has been associated with the reduction of hyperandrogenism, indicated by decreased levels of androgens in people with PCOS. This hormonal balance is essential for the regulation of menstrual cycles and could lead to more regular ovulation.

Improving fertility outcomes

There is some evidence to suggest that acupuncture might enhance fertility outcomes for people with PCOS. Some research highlights increases in pregnancy rates and live birth rates, proposing that acupuncture could be a complementary fertility treatment alongside conventional fertility treatments like IVFclomiphene or gonadotropins but there are also research studies that have found no impact on fertility outcomes, highlighting the discrepancies in research in this area.

Reducing stress levels

People with PCOS tend to have higher levels of stress than those without the syndrome and are more impacted by stress too. The act of taking time to practice a self-care activity like acupuncture may be an effective treatment to lower stress levels.

Comparison with other treatments

When evaluating acupuncture against widely used pharmaceutical agents, such as clomiphene citrate, for inducing ovulation, acupuncture has shown promise but often does not perform as well in the studies as conventional treatments like Clomid. It is often considered an adjunct therapy, particularly for patients seeking less invasive or pharmaceutical approaches to treatment.

Quality of evidence and research gaps

Though promising, the quality of evidence for acupuncture’s efficacy in PCOS treatment requires strengthening through larger, well-designed trials. Current systematic reviews and meta-analyses reveal a low level of evidence that must be addressed to validate and optimise acupuncture protocols for PCOS.

Safety and potential side effects of acupuncture for PCOS

When considering acupuncture for the treatment of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), it is crucial to understand the safety profile and the range of potential side effects that may arise from this therapeutic intervention.

Acupuncture-specific considerations

Acupuncture is largely considered safe when performed by qualified practitioners. However, it may carry a risk of adverse events, which, while typically mild, can include dizziness, nausea, and minor bruising at needle insertion sites. PCOS patients must seek treatment from certified professionals to minimise these risks.

Comparative side effects

Comparing acupuncture to other treatments, its side effects are often deemed less severe. Studies suggest that acupuncture might sometimes heighten side effects when compared to a placebo effect, yet this appears less frequent than with pharmacological alternatives. Patients may experience feelings of relaxation or transient lightheadedness post-acupuncture, indicating the necessity to rest briefly after sessions.

Practical advice for people with PCOS considering acupuncture

If you are contemplating acupuncture as a complementary treatment it is essential to find a qualified practitioner, set realistic expectations and monitor your progress.

Finding a qualified practitioner

Finding a skilled acupuncturist is essential. You should look for a practitioner with credentials recognised by a national acupuncture organisation. For instance, in the UK, you could look for practitioners with membership with the British Acupuncture Council, which maintains standards for professional practice. It’s advisable to check the practitioner’s experience, especially in treating PCOS, and to ensure that they practise in a clean and safe environment.

Setting realistic expectations

Before beginning acupuncture treatment, you should articulate your expectations with your practitioner. The potential benefits of acupuncture, such as improved menstrual regularity and hormonal balance, must be weighed against realistic outcomes. Establishing an understanding of what acupuncture can and cannot do will aid in setting achievable objectives.

Monitoring progress

Keeping track of changes and progress is an integral part of any treatment plan. You should monitor your cycles, symptoms, and any side effects or changes experienced during your acupuncture treatment. Maintaining a record, perhaps in a dedicated diary or app, may assist you and your practitioner in identifying patterns and making necessary adjustments to your treatment. Regular conversations with the acupuncturist to discuss progress are also recommended.

Frequency and duration of sessions

The frequency and duration of acupuncture sessions can vary, but there are general guidelines that practitioners may follow. A typical course might involve treatments once or twice a week, with adjustments made based on the patient’s response. It is not uncommon for a treatment plan to span several months to ensure sustained benefits and the potential for long-term symptom management.

Frequently asked questions: acupuncture for PCOS

This section addresses common inquiries regarding the use of acupuncture as a treatment for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS).

Is acupuncture a good option for managing symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome?

Acupuncture is considered by some healthcare practitioners to be a complementary therapy for managing PCOS symptoms such as irregular menstruation, pain, and stress. Research suggests potential benefits, but patients should consult with a medical professional before starting treatment.

Where are the most effective acupoints for relieving PCOS discomfort?

The most effective acupoints for PCOS are believed to be those that regulate the endocrine system and reproductive areas, such as SP6, LI4, and LR3. However, the selection of acupoints may vary depending on the individual’s specific symptoms and overall health condition.

How can acupuncture contribute to the treatment of ovarian cysts linked to Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?

Acupuncture is hypothesised to help manage the ovarian cysts associated with PCOS by potentially improving blood flow to the ovaries, balancing hormone levels, and reducing inflammation. These effects might contribute to the reduction in size and number of cysts.

What improvements can you expect in Polycystic Ovary Syndrome conditions following acupuncture therapy?

Following acupuncture therapy, some individuals with PCOS may experience improvements in menstrual regularity, a decrease in pain, and better stress management. Additionally, acupuncture may help to improve fertility in some cases by promoting regular ovulation.

How many acupuncture sessions do you need to see the benefits for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?

The frequency of acupuncture sessions may vary, but a common regimen might start with 1 to 2 sessions per week for a few weeks, followed by maintenance sessions. The exact frequency should be tailored to the individual’s needs and determined by a qualified acupuncturist.

Can acupuncture therapy reduce hormonal imbalances associated with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?

There is evidence to suggest that acupuncture may help to restore hormonal balance by influencing the endocrine system, which can be beneficial for individuals with PCOS. However, hormonal changes should be monitored by a healthcare professional alongside acupuncture treatment. More research is required to understand the effects of acupuncture on PCOS.

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Alex Okell ANutr Founder and Editor

Founder and Editor | Registered Associate Nutritionist

  Founder of Be The Collective LTD [The PCOS Collective & The Endo Collective] Alex Okell ANutr is a London-based reproductive health nutritionist with experience in research, private practice and digital media. She holds a Master’s degree in Nutrition from King’s College London and has co-authored papers with the University of Cambridge, King’s College London, The Food Foundation and the Food Standards Agency. Alex offers 1:1 PCOS support in our virtual PCOS clinic.

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