The Impact of Acupuncture and Exercise in Women with PCOS: Results from a New Randomized Controlled Study

From the Domar Center/Boston IVF Blog by Dr. Alice Domar, PhD

Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is the most common endocrine disorder in women of childbearing age. It can be characterized by irregular or absent menstrual cycles, acne, facial hair, and obesity. There is no consensus on the most effective long-term treatment of women who have PCOS. Treatment can include birth control pills in women who are not trying to conceive or the medication metformin in women who are trying to get pregnant. However, some women report side effects from these medications and metformin is not associated with an increase in fertility.  Many practitioners have focused on lifestyle interventions, specifically diet and exercise, and these are considered to be the optimal choices; research has shown that reproductive function is improved with a diet which is moderate in unrefined carbohydrates, coupled with exercise. This approach in fact is the basis behind the Domar Center nutrition director Hillary Wright's new book, "The PCOS Diet Plan".

Many women who are experiencing infertility are interested in complementary or alternative medicine, specifically acupuncture. Anecdotal reports have suggested that acupuncture is associated with improvements in symptoms of PCOS. A study just published out of Sweden is the first randomized controlled study to study and compare the impact of acupuncture and exercise in women with PCOS.

Eighty four women with PCOS were randomized to 16 weeks of low frequency electro-acupuncture, 16 weeks of regular exercise, or a no-intervention group.  Participants were assessed at the end of the 16 week intervention period and again 16 weeks later. Both the acupuncture group and the exercise group experienced significantly greater improvements than the no-intervention group but the acupuncture group experienced the greatest improvements in terms of menstrual frequency and improved hyperandrogenism.

This study suggests that women with PCOS might well benefit from acupuncture, specifically electro-acupuncture. Although this study replicated previous research documenting the benefits of physical exercise, the acupuncture patients actually experienced more benefits than the exercise patients.  The authors of the study concluded that electro-acupuncture can be used to treat the varied symptoms of PCOS.

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