Does TCM boost fertility?

Posted on January 18, 2012

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Image via Daily Mail

Dateline: 25 November 2011 // Posted by: B. Monahan

Source: Daily Mail

Story: “Chinese medicine could double the chances of childless couples conceiving”

Summary: According to this article, couples with fertility problems are twice as likely to get pregnant using traditional Chinese medicine as western drugs scientists have discovered. It is stated that a discovery of two-fold improvement in pregnancy rates over just four months of treatment from practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine. Furthermore, research from Ipsos Mori added to this in declaring that at least six million citizens of the United Kingdom have consulted a Western or Chinese herbal practitioner in the last two years. This article outlines the latest study from researchers at Adelaide University, Australia. The eight clinical trials, thirteen other studies and case reports of 1181 women with infertility problems concluded a 3.5 rise in pregnancies over a four month period among women using TCM compared with western medicine.

The study’s authors declared, “Our meta-analysis suggests traditional Chinese herbal medicine to be more effective in the treatment of female infertility – achieving on average a 60 per cent pregnancy rate over four months compared with 30 per cent achieved with standard western drug treatment”. This difference was said to be due to the careful analysis of the menstrual cycle by TCM practitioners. Lastly, it has stated that “previous research suggests acupuncture may help some childless couples to conceive”.

Why is this PseudoNews? This ambiguous article contains particular material that is scientifically questionable. Firstly, the very subject of Chinese herbal medicine is a pseudoscientific topic. It is considered an ‘alternative medicine’ in the Western World but highly accepted as medical care throughout East Asia. This article is promoting an unproven and fraudulent medical practice by scientific means. The poor standard of evidence shown throughout is one vague area. It outlines its figures but none of which are from a trusted scientific source or have been repeated. It only shows reports from the journal of “Complementary Therapies in Medicine”.

Furthermore, they mention that “previous research suggests acupuncture may help some childless couples to conceive”. The first thing to note is that, according to the science to date, acupuncture does not assist conception in its own right. Virtually all the research on this area has looked at women undergoing IVF, most particularly those who receive acupuncture around the time of embryo transfer. The evidence that has accumulated from this work is diverse in quality and outcome, such that it is difficult to discern a clear effect one way or the other. However, the studies do not adequately control for placebo effects and none of this research shows that acupuncture assists IVF by influencing reproductive biology. In the best instance, the effect of acupuncture on conception in this case is indirect.

What features of pseudoscience are on show? The first pseudoscientific feature on show here is confirmation bias. The confirmation bias relies on a positive biased focus and weighting towards only that evidence which is consistent with a current belief, and a negative bias to ignore results that challenge the view. Here the evidence attempting to ‘prove’ that Chinese medicine could double the chances of childless couples conceiving is concentrating on only the evidence which consists with the argument being developed. It does not involve any argumentative evidence to contradict its claim. As stated before the article gave evidence that “Our meta-analysis suggests traditional Chinese herbal medicine to be more effective in the treatment of female infertility – achieving on average a 60 per cent pregnancy rate over four months compared with 30 per cent achieved with standard western drug treatment”. This selective evidence adds to the confirmation of assumptions.

Secondly, this feature is aimed directly at the public. Pseudoscientific ideas are driven by cultural, ideological and commercial goals. Scientific findings are peer reviewed, published in science journals and only released to the public after the finding has been considered and found genuine. However, this topic will not stand up to scientific scrutiny as the issue of herbal medicines is widely recognised as a pseudoscientific topic in itself.

Finally, there is lack of experimental control. The only two methods compared are IVF and Chinese herbal medicine. Therefore, it cannot be plausible that Chinese medicine contributes all it says it does. It would not even be deemed scientific to lend credibility to this, as for one example, it would appear that traditional Chinese medicine achieved this success not through ‘medicine’ but through monitoring of the menstrual cycle.

The moral of the story: Claims in relation to alternative and complementary medicine are highly extravagant and usually could be contradicted by extensively documented research. They offer great curiosity value to the reader but as a disadvantage place doubt in a readers mind about the degree to which the qualities of evidence and sound argumentation are needed to sustain an argument. This area is vague as a scientific topic it would be implausible to ascertain its relevance as a medical treatment over proven modern medicine.

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