An old-fashioned medical technique has turned out to help women get pregnant. The 100-year-old method involves injecting poppy seed oil through the fallopian tubes during an X-ray scan to check for blockages. But the procedure is being replaced by more modern scanning techniques.
“This has put the cat among the pigeons,” says Tim Child of Oxford Fertility, who was not involved in the study. “I think this will change people’s practice.”
When couples have trouble getting pregnant, a common cause is blockages in a woman’s fallopian tubes. These prevent eggs travelling from the ovaries to the uterus. To search for blockages, doctors may put a liquid containing dye into the uterus. The dye can then be seen on X-ray scans as the liquid flows from the uterus through the tubes, revealing whether they are blocked. The procedure is called a hysterosalpingography.
Ben Mol of the University of Adelaide wondered if flushing the fallopian tubes out in this way might improve a woman’s chances of conceiving, and whether the poppy seed oil itself might help clear any mucus or blockages in the tubes.
To find out, Mol and his colleagues compared the use of poppy seed oil with water in 1119 women. Each woman was randomly given the dye dissolved in either oil or water, before having an X-ray scan. A small percentage of the women in each group went on to have IVF or other treatments, but most did not.
Of the women who received the poppy seed oil, 40 per cent got pregnant over the next six months, compared with 29 per cent of those who got water. “The size of the effect is impressive, compared with other fertility interventions,” says Child. Intrauterine insemination, which involves placing sperm directly into the uterus, only raises pregnancy rates by a few percentage points, for instance.
Oil is better than water
However, the researchers do not yet know why the procedure has such an effect. There could be something in poppy seed oil that has a specific benefit, or it could just be that oil is better than water at dissolving any debris or mucus in the tubes, says Mol.
But using dye and X-rays to check the fallopian tubes is being phased out in favour of ultrasound scans, which require inserting a non-oily foam. This alternative procedure allows doctors to see the fallopian tubes and uterus without exposing women to radiation from X-rays.
Child says his fertility centre will now consider using oil to flush the fallopian tubes without the subsequent X-rays. “It looks like it’s not just an investigation it’s a treatment,” he says.
Mol thinks that more women should have their tubes checked using the oil procedure before starting IVF. “If you know your infertility is due to poor semen quality or no ovulation then this is not going to help, but if there’s any other cause this might be beneficial,” he says. “It’s really cheap compared with IVF.”
Since beginning his study, Mol discovered that he was probably conceived because his mother had her fallopian tubes investigated this way. His parents had been trying for a baby for eight years beforehand. “It’s highly likely my brother and I are the result of this.”