Updated 22 May 2017

Flushing fallopian tubes with poppy seed oil may help couples conceive

In a study, an age-old technique significantly increased pregnancy rates.


In 1917 doctors first flushed a woman's fallopian tubes with iodised poppy seed oil. 

Now, precisely 100 years later, this medical treatment could help infertile women get pregnant without undergoing pricey in vitro fertilisation (IVF), a new study suggests.

Exciting results

"Over the past century, pregnancy rates among infertile women reportedly increased after their tubes had been flushed with either water or oil during a dye test of the fallopian tubes under X-ray," explained study lead researcher Ben Mol. He's with the University of Adelaide in Australia.

The study is scheduled for presentation at the World Congress on Endometriosis in Vancouver, Canada.

"Until now, it has been unclear whether the type of solution used in the procedure was influencing the change in fertility," Mol said in a university news release.

"Our results have been even more exciting than we could have predicted, helping to confirm that an age-old medical technique still has an important place in modern medicine," he added.

This study included more than 1 100 women being treated for infertility who had their fallopian tubes flushed with either the poppy seed oil or water.

Successful pregnancies occurred within six months for nearly 40% of the women in the oil group and 29% of those in the water group, the researchers reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The poppy seed oil used in the study is available in 47 countries worldwide, the authors noted.

Procedure much cheaper

"The rates of successful pregnancy were significantly higher in the oil-based group, and after only one treatment," Mol said. "This is an important outcome for women who would have had no other course of action other than to seek IVF treatment. It offers new hope to infertile couples."

However, "we still don't really understand why there is a benefit, only that there is a benefit from this technique, in particular for women who don't present with any other treatable fertility symptoms," Mol pointed out.

"Further research would need to be conducted into the mechanisms behind what we're seeing. For now, and considering the technique has been used for 100 years without any known side effects, we believe it is a viable treatment for infertility prior to couples seeking IVF," he said.

"Not only is there a known benefit, but this flushing procedure is also a fraction of the cost of one cycle of IVF. Considering that 40% of women in the oil-based group achieved a successful pregnancy, that's 40% of couples who could avoid having to go through the huge costs and emotions associated with IVF treatment," Mol concluded.

Complications rare

According to Dr Tomer Singer who directs reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, the reason some reproductive endocrinologists shy away from oil-based contrasts as compared to water-based contrasts is the slight increased risk for pelvic inflammatory disease and side effects.

Side effects can include pelvic pain lasting for hours or a few days, and controlled by non-prescription painkillers, Singer said. "Some patients will experience a small amount of vaginal bleeding, fever or chills," he added. "Rare complications of [the procedure] are pelvic infection and allergic reaction to the dye; both are well below 1%."

As for study author Mol, he believes more couples should be made aware of the flushing procedure.

"Professional bodies responsible for guidelines, funders of health care, and fertility clinics all have a role to play in assisting infertile couples to make this intervention available to couples before IVF is started," Mol said.

Read more:

Antioxidants may boost fertility

5 common fertility questions

Chemicals (PFCs) affect fertility


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