Acupuncture for polycystic ovarian syndrome: Cochrane systematic review

Abstract

Background

Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is characterised by the clinical signs of oligo-amenorrhoea, infertility and hirsutism. Conventional treatment of PCOS includes a range of oral pharmacological agents, lifestyle changes and surgical modalities. Beta-endorphin is present in the follicular fluid of both normal and polycystic ovaries. It was demonstrated that the beta-endorphin levels in ovarian follicular fluid of otherwise healthy women who were undergoing ovulation were much higher than the levels measured in plasma. Given that acupuncture impacts on beta-endorphin production, which may affect gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) secretion, it is postulated that acupuncture may have a role in ovulation induction via increased beta-endorphin production effecting GnRH secretion. This is an update of our previous review published in 2016.

Objectives

To assess the effectiveness and safety of acupuncture treatment for oligo/anovulatory women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) for both fertility and symptom control.

Search methods

We identified relevant studies from databases including the Gynaecology and Fertility Group Specialised Register, CENTRAL, MEDLINE, Embase, PsycINFO, CNKI, CBM and VIP. We also searched trial registries and reference lists from relevant papers. CENTRAL, MEDLINE, Embase, PsycINFO, CNKI and VIP searches are current to May 2018. CBM database search is to November 2015.

Selection criteria

We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) that studied the efficacy of acupuncture treatment for oligo/anovulatory women with PCOS. We excluded quasi- or pseudo-RCTs.

Data collection and analysis

Two review authors independently selected the studies, extracted data and assessed risk of bias. We calculated risk ratios (RR), mean difference (MD), standardised mean difference (SMD) and 95% confidence intervals (CIs). Primary outcomes were live birth rate, multiple pregnancy rate and ovulation rate, and secondary outcomes were clinical pregnancy rate, restored regular menstruation period, miscarriage rate and adverse events. We assessed the quality of the evidence using GRADE methods.

Main results

We included eight RCTs with 1546 women. Five RCTs were included in our previous review and three new RCTs were added in this update of the review. They compared true acupuncture versus sham acupuncture (three RCTs), true acupuncture versus relaxation (one RCT), true acupuncture versus clomiphene (one RCT), low-frequency electroacupuncture versus physical exercise or no intervention (one RCT) and true acupuncture versus Diane-35 (two RCTs). Studies that compared true acupuncture versus Diane-35 did not measure fertility outcomes as they were focused on symptom control.

Seven of the studies were at high risk of bias in at least one domain.

For true acupuncture versus sham acupuncture, we could not exclude clinically relevant differences in live birth (RR 0.97, 95% CI 0.76 to 1.24; 1 RCT, 926 women; low-quality evidence); multiple pregnancy rate (RR 0.89, 95% CI 0.33 to 2.45; 1 RCT, 926 women; low-quality evidence); ovulation rate (SMD 0.02, 95% CI –0.15 to 0.19, I2 = 0%; 2 RCTs, 1010 women; low-quality evidence); clinical pregnancy rate (RR 1.03, 95% CI 0.82 to 1.29; I2 = 0%; 3 RCTs, 1117 women; low-quality evidence) and miscarriage rate (RR 1.10, 95% CI 0.77 to 1.56; 1 RCT, 926 women; low-quality evidence).

Number of intermenstrual days may have improved in participants receiving true acupuncture compared to sham acupuncture (MD –312.09 days, 95% CI –344.59 to –279.59; 1 RCT, 141 women; low-quality evidence).

True acupuncture probably worsens adverse events compared to sham acupuncture (RR 1.16, 95% CI 1.02 to 1.31; I2 = 0%; 3 RCTs, 1230 women; moderate-quality evidence).

No studies reported data on live birth rate and multiple pregnancy rate for the other comparisons: physical exercise or no intervention, relaxation and clomiphene. Studies including Diane-35 did not measure fertility outcomes.

We were uncertain whether acupuncture improved ovulation rate (measured by ultrasound three months post treatment) compared to relaxation (MD 0.35, 95% CI 0.14 to 0.56; 1 RCT, 28 women; very low-quality evidence) or Diane-35 (RR 1.45, 95% CI 0.87 to 2.42; 1 RCT, 58 women; very low-quality evidence).

Overall evidence ranged from very low quality to moderate quality. The main limitations were failure to report important clinical outcomes and very serious imprecision.

Authors' conclusions

For true acupuncture versus sham acupuncture we cannot exclude clinically relevant differences in live birth rate, multiple pregnancy rate, ovulation rate, clinical pregnancy rate or miscarriage. Number of intermenstrual days may improve in participants receiving true acupuncture compared to sham acupuncture. True acupuncture probably worsens adverse events compared to sham acupuncture.

No studies reported data on live birth rate and multiple pregnancy rate for the other comparisons: physical exercise or no intervention, relaxation and clomiphene. Studies including Diane-35 did not measure fertility outcomes as the women in these trials did not seek fertility.

We are uncertain whether acupuncture improves ovulation rate (measured by ultrasound three months post treatment) compared to relaxation or Diane-35. The other comparisons did not report on this outcome.

Adverse events were recorded in the acupuncture group for the comparisons physical exercise or no intervention, clomiphene and Diane-35. These included dizziness, nausea and subcutaneous haematoma. Evidence was very low quality with very wide CIs and very low event rates.

There are only a limited number of RCTs in this area, limiting our ability to determine effectiveness of acupuncture for PCOS.

Author(s)

Lim Chi Eung Danforn, Ng Rachel Wai Chung, Cheng Nga Chong Lisa, Zhang George Shengxi, Chen Hui

Summary

Acupuncture for polycystic ovarian syndrome

Review question

What is the effectiveness and safety of acupuncture treatment for ovulation disorders in women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)?

Background

PCOS is where women have multiple cysts (fluid-filled sacs) on their ovaries (organs that produce eggs) and is characterised by the clinical signs of infrequent or very light menstruation (periods), failure to conceive (become pregnant) and excessive hair growth. Women may or may not have symptoms. The current standard western treatments for women with PCOS are prescription medicines, surgery and lifestyle changes. There has been evidence suggesting acupuncture may influence ovulation (release of the egg) by affecting levels of various hormones. Acupuncture is a Chinese therapy where fine needles are inserted into the skin in certain places. The exact mechanism of how acupuncture works for PCOS is not known and we aimed to explore the use of it for PCOS in this review.

Study characteristics

We searched medical databases for clinical studies where people were randomly put into one of two or more treatment groups including acupuncture treatment for women with PCOS who were infrequently or never ovulating. Acupuncture was compared with pretend acupuncture (sham), no treatment, lifestyle changes (e.g. relaxation) and conventional treatment.

We included eight studies with 1546 women in this review. The studies compared true acupuncture versus sham acupuncture, clomiphene (medicines to induce ovulation), relaxation and Diane-35 (combined oral contraceptive pill); and low-frequency electroacupuncture (where small electrical currents are passed through the acupuncture needles) versus physical exercise. We included women who wanted to get pregnant and women who wanted regular ovulation and symptom control as our two main populations of interest.

Key results

Our main interests were live birth rate, multiple pregnancy rate (for women who wanted to get pregnant) and ovulation rate (for women who wanted regular ovulation/symptom control). Due to the very low quality of the evidence and imprecise results, we were uncertain of the effect of acupuncture on live birth rate, multiple pregnancy rate and ovulation rate compared to sham acupuncture. For the same reasons, we were also uncertain of the effect of acupuncture on clinical pregnancy and miscarriage rate. Acupuncture may have improved restoration of regular menstrual periods. Acupuncture probably worsened side effects when compared to sham acupuncture.

No studies reported data on live birth rate and multiple pregnancy rate for the other comparisons: physical exercise or no intervention, relaxation and clomiphene. Studies including Diane-35 did not measure fertility outcomes as women were only interested in symptom control.

We were uncertain whether acupuncture improved ovulation rate compared to relaxation or Diane-35 (measured by ultrasound, which uses high-frequency sound waves to create an image, three months after treatment). The other comparisons did not report on ovulation rate.

Side effects were recorded in the acupuncture group for the comparisons physical exercise or no intervention, clomiphene and Diane-35. These included dizziness, nausea (feeling sick) and bruising.

The overall evidence was low or very low quality. There is currently insufficient evidence to support the use of acupuncture for treatment of ovulation disorders in women with PCOS.

Quality of the evidence

The evidence ranged from very low to moderate quality, the main limitations were not reporting important clinical results and not enough data.

Reviewer's Conclusions

Implications for practice

For true acupuncture versus sham acupuncture, we cannot exclude clinically relevant differences in live birth rate, multiple pregnancy rate, ovulation rate, clinical pregnancy rate or miscarriage. Number of intermenstrual days may improve in participants receiving true acupuncture compared to sham acupuncture. True acupuncture probably worsens adverse events compared to sham acupuncture.

No studies reported data on live birth rate and multiple pregnancy rate for the other comparisons: physical exercise or no intervention, relaxation and clomiphene. Studies including Diane-35 did not measure fertility outcomes.

We are uncertain whether acupuncture improves ovulation rate (measured by ultrasound three months post treatment) compared to relaxation or Diane-35. The other comparisons did not report on this outcome.

There were adverse events in the acupuncture group for the comparisons physical exercise or no intervention, clomiphene and Diane-35. These included dizziness, nausea and subcutaneous haematoma. Evidence was very low quality with very wide confidence intervals and very low event rates.

There are only a limited number of randomised controlled trials (RCT) in this area, limiting our ability to determine effectiveness of acupuncture for polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).

Implications for research

Given the lack of evidence for acupuncture for PCOS, further large-scale, properly designed RCTs are needed to assess the use of acupuncture in the management of PCOS. Women with PCOS meeting standard diagnostic criteria (e.g. Rotterdam consensus) seeking fertility or symptom control should be recruited and an acupuncture regimen involving a set of standard acupuncture points and mode of stimulation should be considered. Controls should also receive a standard regimen of sham acupuncture in order to minimise the potential therapeutic effects of sham acupuncture. Consistent, standard outcome measures including live birth rate should be reported.

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