In The Field

ESHRE: Not very complementary

Most of the criticism levelled at complementary therapies is based on the fact that a lot of them don’t actually do anything. Techniques such as homeopathy and reflexology do not have a clinically proven mode of action and don’t deliver any benefit beyond placebo. But at the same time, many would argue that this fact makes it perfectly acceptable for women who are desperate to conceive to use such therapies if they think they will help. After all, what’s the harm?

But women who use alternative therapies may actually be damaging their chances of successfully conceiving through fertility treatment, according to Jacky Boivin of the Cardiff University. In a study of more than 800 Danish women embarking on IVF treatment, 45% of those who also took complementary therapies got pregnant within 12 months, compared with 66% for those who didn’t. The implication is clear: complementary therapies, usually thought of as ultimately benign, can dent your chances of having a baby via IVF.

That’s pretty striking. But the results call for closer analysis. First of all, what could the mechanism be? Boivin suggested that herbal supplements (which accounted for nearly 40% of complementary therapies in the study) might interfere with the hormone-altering drugs and other medications essential for successful IVF. Or perhaps the type of person who is interested in complementary medicine is not the type who will reliably self-administer all the right injections at exactly the right time.

But what about the most popular complementary therapy among the women in the study – reflexology? How can a glorified foot rub stop you conceiving a baby? The answer might be that women who use complementary treatments are not using them to help themselves get pregnant – they’re doing it to try and cope with the psychological stress caused by their own infertility.

That leaves us with a chicken-and-egg situation. Are pregnancy rates lower because the women are using complementary therapies, or are the complementary therapies a reaction to greater stress and the need for more psychological relief? Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy?

The best way to help these women might be to tall them to ditch the holistic massages and healing crystals, and instead turn to procedures that definitely do work, such as psychological counselling to cope with the stress and depression that can be engendered by infertility. In this way, infertile women might feel less burdened by the pressure to conceive, and in so doing, boost their chances of success.

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