TCM: The Gentle Approach to Infertility Treatment

This is what human life looks like soon after inception. Image courtesy of ekem, uploaded by Llull.

This is what human life looks like soon after conception. Image courtesy of ekem, uploaded by Llull.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners have been dealing with the problem of infertility for two thousand years. Like Western medicine, TCM practices are constantly evolving in efforts to improve. Although the basis of infertility treatment in TCM has remained unchanged over the centuries, TCM practitioner Jane Lyttleton explains that the latest research in Western reproductive medicine also influences and advances the practice of TCM.

Infertility: The Typical TCM Patient

Infertility affects about 15% of couples. Most Western clients turn to TCM only after conventional Western medical techniques have failed them; the estimated failure rate is 70%. Dr. Raymond Chang, the medical director of Meridian Medical Group (a TCM clinic), has both an MD and classical training in acupuncture. He says that the majority of patients who come to Meridian Medical Group for infertility treatment have referrals from Western reproductive medicine specialists. According to Dr. Chang, his patients are most often women who failed to conceive after multiple attempts with in vitro fertilization (IVF).

TTC (Trying to Conceive): Stress and Emotional Pain

Most Western patients seeking TCM treatment are either approaching their forties or already over forty. (Chinese patients, in contrast, generally come to infertility clinics at a much earlier age.) Painfully aware that the window of opportunity for childbearing is rapidly closing, the typical Western infertility patient feels stressed. Similarly, Australian researchers Ann Alfred and Karin Reid reported that all of the subjects in their study expressed emotional pain. Lyttleton writes, “To procreate is our deepest and most primal instinct…. If this profound drive is thwarted, then the distress engendered is not just emotional, it is cellular. Infertility can be a brutal disease not just for the distress it causes but also for the lack of understanding by the patient’s family and community.”

TCM’s Approach to Infertility

As with all illnesses, TCM treats infertility patients based on “pattern recognition”; i.e. measuring the body signs that are distinctive for an individual. Four different kinds of observations include asking questions/listening, looking, feeling (taking the pulses) and smelling.

There are many causes of infertility, each of which must be treated in a different way; image courtesy of  Mikael Häggström

There are many causes of infertility, each of which must be treated in a different way; image courtesy of Mikael Häggström.

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TCM makes no distinction between illnesses of the mind and those of the body. Therefore, when a patient experiences emotional pain or stress, the TCM treatment includes stress reduction.

Non-invasive Treatment

The typical TCM treatment of infertility is non-invasive. Patients receive herbal medicine to take several times daily over a period of three to six months. They see the TCM practitioner on a regular basis during this time to determine whether the prescription needs modification. TCM practitioners customize herbal prescriptions to respond as precisely as possible to the nuances of each individual’s pattern. The TCM practitioner may also recommend acupuncture and pinpoint specific locations for the placement of the needles. Additional recommendations may include treatments such as Qi Gong exercises or a special diet.

Sometimes the TCM practitioner orders pathology tests for analysis of blood or semen, or in rare cases, recommends surgery.

Furthermore, TCM encourages all patients to lead a healthy lifestyle.

Trying to Conceive: Causes of Infertility

TCM defines the causes of infertility differently from Western medicine. It categorizes three main problem areas: “deficiency syndrome,” “stagnancy syndrome” and “heat syndrome.”

These “syndromes” (i.e., conditions) prevent the normal functioning of the sexual and reproductive organs. One of the great strengths of TCM, according to practitioners, is its ability to restore normal functioning. Sometimes, they say, this is sufficient to bring about a pregnancy, even in cases where Western medicine has failed.

TCM and Western Medicine: Complementing One Another?

Western medicine and TCM appear to complement each other very well, with little overlap between the two medical systems. Clavey (in his preface to Lyttleton’s book) writes that the “strengths of Western medicine are just those areas in which Chinese medicine is weak, while the weaknesses of Western medicine are also precisely those areas where Chinese medicine has the most to offer.” For example, while male infertility is difficult to treat with Western medicine, TCM considers it relatively easy to treat except in cases of azoospermia, the absence of spermatazoa in the semen.

Western medicine is most effective in treating cases of infertility originating in extreme dysfunction of the reproductive system. On the other hand, it is less successful in treating infertility caused by mild dysfunction. The reverse is true of TCM; it is more successful in treating infertility caused by minor dysfunction and less successful in dealing with major dysfunction, especially when this requires surgery.

How Long Does TCM Infertility Treatment Take?

Although Western medicine sets no specific time limit on the treatment of infertility, most patients who arrive at fertility clinics are in their late thirties or early forties and feel pressured by biological considerations to conceive as quickly as possible. In contrast, TCM practitioners usually recommend a six-month period of treatment prior to conception. During this time, the Chinese doctor seeks to clarify the problems and restore normal reproductive function.

Success of TCM in Treating Infertility

As with Western medicine, conception and the birth of a healthy child defines success in the TCM treatment of infertility. However, Lyttleton writes that “…not all cases, not even most cases, are successful even with correct treatment.”


Alfred, A. and Reid, K. Women’s experiences in the treatment of infertility. (2011). December 2, 2013.

Bouchez, Colette. The ancient art of infertility Treatment. (2003). WebMD.  December 2, 2013.

Lyttleton, Jane. Treatment of Infertility with Chinese Medicine. (2004). Churchill, Livingstone. Edinburgh.  December 2, 2013.

Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, PCOM. TCM to treat infertility.  December 2, 2013.

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