Think of 10 women you know who are of childbearing age. Statistically speaking, chances are that one of them has polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). This common endocrine disorder is characterized by hormonal imbalances, including an excess of testosterone. PCOS patients are prone to irregular ovulation and infrequent menstruation… acne… excessive hair growth… obesity… insulin resistance… cardiovascular disease… and fertility problems. Medications (such as oral contraceptives and insulin sensitizers) can help control symptoms but carry a risk for negative side effects. A recent study suggests an intriguing alternative.

Various forms of acupuncture are widely used by patients for infertility problems—but there has been little data on acupuncture’s effects on PCOS symptoms in patients who were not trying to conceive. To investigate, researchers from Göteborg University in Sweden recruited 84 PCOS patients ages 18 to 37. Over the course of 16 weeks, one group of participants received 14 sessions of electroacupuncture (acupuncture with low-frequency electrical stimulation of the needles) in abdominal muscles and leg muscles, plus manual acupuncture (with manual stimulation of the needles) in the hands. A second group did aerobic exercise (such as brisk walking, jogging or cycling) for at least 30 minutes three days per week. A third group, which served as a control, had no intervention.

Results: After 16 weeks, the women who had received electroacupuncture showed more normal hormone levels (including decreased testosterone) and improved menstrual regularity… additional follow-up another 16 weeks later showed that these improvements persisted and that participants’ acne also had lessened. Electroacupuncture produced no significant adverse side effects other than occasional redness or bruising at needle sites and, in one case, dizziness and nausea. In the exercise group, hormone levels, menstrual regularity and acne also improved somewhat—but not as much as in the electroacupuncture group. Women in the control group experienced no change in PCOS symptoms.