Acupuncture is popular with IVF patients
There is no evidence acupuncture or Chinese herbal medicine increase the chance of getting pregnant through IVF, fertility experts say in new guidance.
The methods are increasingly offered as a way of boosting the chances of a baby, but the British Fertility Society suggests couples may be wasting money.
They analysed 14 trials involving 2,670 people before issuing the new guidance.
But a leading practitioner said that better designed trials would show that the methods could help some couples.
All the trials involved acupuncture, in which needles were inserted into different areas of the body at different stages in the in vitro fertilisation (IVF) cycle.
No matter at what stage of the process acupuncture was used, it had no impact on the pregnancy or live birth rate, the BFS researchers found.
They did however also find it caused no harm, with no difference in miscarriage rates.
There were no published trials on the use of Chinese herbs which were rigorous enough for inclusion, so the team concluded that there was "currently no evidence to support the use of this in fertility treatments".
As more couples seek IVF, there has been a growth in accompanying complementary therapies, and acupuncture has benefited.
It is the most popular option for patients because it is thought to improve blood flow and increase the chance of an embryo implanting.
Trial and error
But this sometimes comes at a cost which could buy a couple a further cycle of IVF.
Professor Adam Balen, head of BFS's policy and practice committee, said patients needed to be aware of the lack of evidence on acupuncture and herbs before signing up to a course of treatment.
There was a "a great deal of discrepancy", he added, in the way in which the trials were designed and the type of acupuncture used.
"Any future randomised controlled trials in this area need to ensure that they use a standardised acupuncture method, have a large sample size and include adequate controls to account for any placebo effects."
One high-profile practitioner, Dr Xiao-Ping Zhai, of The Zhai Fertility Treatment Clinic, said there were indeed problems with the way in which these trials were designed and that different analysis would show the benefits.
"Certainly for those with unexplained fertility problems in particular, we know acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine can be beneficial. What matters is both the expertise and experience of the practitioner, but most of all the treatment of the patient as an individual. It is the tailored treatment which is key.
"We need clinical trials that take this into account."
A statement from the British Acupuncture Council noted: "Fertility focused acupuncture treatment has been found to help increase blood flow to the reproductive organs, balance hormone levels, regulate the menstrual cycle and help improve the lining of the uterus and quality of eggs released.
"BACC practitioners recognise that there are many factors which may cause infertility such as stress, irregular hormone levels and disrupted menstrual cycles. As a holistic therapy, acupuncture helps to identify underlying health issues which may cause disruption to the body's natural balance, resulting in symptoms such as infertility."
But one of the country's leading experts on the efficacy of complementary medicine, Professor Edzard Ernst of Pensinsula Medical School, described the new guidelines as "long overdue clarification".
"Infertile women have been misled for some time now to think that traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) can help them getting pregnant. This analysis shows two things very clearly: the totality of the acupuncture trials does not support this notion, and for Chinese herbs, we have no evidence at all.
"This will help infertile women not to waste their money or get disappointed by TCM practitioners who behave less than responsibly when recommending these treatments."