How Acupuncture Can Help Pregnant Women

Acupuncture
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In recent years, acupuncture has grown in popularity as an alternative therapy during pregnancy to treat a range of discomforts. If you're pregnant and interested in trying acupuncture, you may wonder if it really works—and have concerns about potential dangers. Below we explore the safety and efficacy of using this ancient practice while expecting.

Overview

Acupuncture is a complementary medical practice of traditional Chinese medicine that seeks to balance the flow of energy (known as chi or qi) in the body. This healing art has been used in Eastern medicine for centuries and there is an established tradition (and substantial anecdotal evidence) of positive results.

While there is a lack of rigorous, comprehensive scientific studies to back up some acupuncture health claims, preliminary research does show many promising results.

Acupuncture is used primarily as alternative medicine and is not routinely a part of traditional care. However, the healing art is often included in the growing trend of an integrative healthcare approach. And many conventional doctors are seeing some benefits in incorporating acupuncture into their patients' healthcare.

Some studies have also shown promising results for its effectiveness in pain relief. It's also reported to help discomfort from arthritis, migraines, and headaches, and even improve skin appearance by improving circulation and tightening facial muscles.

How It Works

Most often, acupuncture treatments involve stimulating key points in the body (acupuncture points or acupoints) with thin, sterile needles. Applying acupuncture needles is thought to enhance the body's natural ability to self-heal, thereby alleviating pain and other discomforts, boosting immunity, and treating some conditions.

Do the Needles Hurt?

Most people report that they barely feel any pokes from the needles.

Researchers have found that many acupoints correlate to deep-seated nerves, which trigger the release of endorphins and other brain chemicals when activated by the needles. This process of nerve stimulation helps to explain how acupuncture might block pain signals to help to alleviate a number of common discomforts.

Acupuncture and Pregnancy

Increased interest in acupuncture during pregnancy, in particular, is due, in part, to some doctors' claims and limited research that the ancient practice can help improve fertility in couples looking to conceive.

Other doctors and healthcare providers have been recommending acupuncture as a way to provide pain relief during and after childbirth, and as a strategy for decreasing opioid use.

Many women are also turning to acupuncture to help alleviate common pregnancy ailments such as nausea, vomiting, and headaches caused by hormone changes.

Acupuncture during pregnancy has not been thoroughly studied, so it is challenging to say with 100% certainty whether acupuncture during pregnancy is safe or effective.

Additionally, not all the claims about its benefits are supported by science. Knowing what acupuncture works best for can help align your expectations and avoid disappointment if you do choose to try it.

Potential Benefits

A 2013 review by Medical Acupuncture revealed that anywhere from 4% to 13% of European women use acupuncture during their pregnancies. They did not have exact numbers for American women but noted that acupuncture use, in general, was rising in the United States. The researchers theorized that pregnant women would be part of that growing population.

Over the past few decades, alternative medicine techniques, including acupuncture and its use during pregnancy, have grown in popularity in the West.

In theory, acupuncture during pregnancy can be used to treat a variety of different pregnancy-related ailments or be used to assist with labor or conception. Potential uses include to:

  • Alleviate nausea and vomiting
  • Alleviate pain after a surgical birth
  • Alleviate pain during labor
  • Alleviate panic, stress, and depression during pregnancy
  • Assist with general pain and discomfort from pregnancy
  • Assist with labor induction
  • Assist women in conceiving, both naturally and with assisted reproductive technology, such as IVF
  • Correct a breech position during pregnancy
  • Reduce breast tenderness
  • Reduce fatigue
  • Reduce headaches
  • Reduce heartburn
  • Reduce pelvic discomfort
  • Treat constipation and hemorrhoids
  • Treat sciatica pain

Some pregnant women are drawn to acupuncture's promise of gentle, relaxing, pain-free treatment for some of pregnancy's most nagging discomforts.

Pain

Acupuncture for pain relief during labor and after surgery (c-section) is one of the most commonly cited uses for the therapy in pregnancy, especially because healthcare providers are looking for alternatives to opioids. New mothers are at higher risk for addiction after being prescribed opioid painkillers for pregnancy-related pain.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' (ACOG) 2018 report on labor and birth management mentions acupuncture as one of several documented strategies that may help manage pain during labor. But, the report also notes that there haven't been enough studies done to definitively conclude that acupuncture should be recommended.

Nausea and Vomiting

The 2013 ACOG review found that acupuncture was effective for relieving nausea associated with analgesia from c-sections, so it has may have many uses for relieving symptoms, even in a hospital setting.

Acupuncture may also be helpful for women who suffer from severe nausea or vomiting during their pregnancies (technically called hyperemesis gravidarum), especially if they want to avoid medication as a remedy.

Labor Induction and Breech Positions

In at least two cases in the review, acupuncture was used successfully as a way to induce labor without any medication. This was in mothers who were full-term and had been recommended for labor initiation.

Acupuncture has also been said to be helpful in correcting a baby who is in a breech position, to turn the head down to be ready for delivery.

Pelvic Pain

One of the most largely-respected and widely-cited reviews on acupuncture during pregnancy concluded that the practice is beneficial in relieving pelvic pain and low back pain associated with pregnancy.

Depression

Acupuncture has been associated with relieving symptoms of depression during pregnancy. This may be especially important to note since, unlike antidepressants or other medication commonly used to try to treat depression, acupuncture has no known potential risks to the unborn fetus.

Conception

Although acupuncture has been associated with helping women conceive, especially when used with IVF, a 2018 study by the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that there is no proof that acupuncture increases the incidence of live births in women who are using IVF to get pregnant.

However, the study noted that many acupuncture recipients did report feeling more relaxed and less stressed with acupuncture, which is helpful when undergoing IVF, so the practice shouldn't be completely ruled out for use when trying to conceive.

Any practice that is safe and could help a mother relax more when trying to conceive can be a helpful adjunct to staying healthy and potentially increasing the odds of conception.

Potential Risks

Acupuncture has a very low risk of negative effects. The most commonly reported adverse reactions include soreness at the needle site, local bruising, weakness, fatigue, sweating, and nausea.

According to a 2013 review, there is only one documented case of negative effects of acupuncture during pregnancy and it was related to injury as a result of asthma complications. The baby was unaffected and delivered healthy and full-term.

Pressure Points

Where acupuncture is administered may be especially important to consider when pregnant. The same review study mentioned that there is some concern from the ACOG about some acupuncture points causing premature labor, especially if used before a woman is full-term in her pregnancy.

The 2018 JAMA study on IVF and acupuncture also found that there was a higher rate of miscarriage (almost double, in fact) in the group that received acupuncture as compared to the group of women who did not receive acupuncture.

The study concluded that, in those cases, the acupuncture treatments may have been administered incorrectly, which could account for the higher miscarriage rates. They also noted that there is an especially high link between the acupuncture points LI4 and SP6 and miscarriage.

However, there haven't been any documented cases of acupuncture definitively causing premature labor or miscarriage, so it is just a general recommendation to avoid the practice during your first trimester.

Non-Certified Locations

There are also some obvious risks of acupuncture, during pregnancy and otherwise, if you choose a practitioner who is not certified or one who does not follow proper safety protocols when using needles. A risk of blood-borne disease transmission, such as HIV, is always a risk when working with needles in the human body.

It's also worth mentioning that not all acupuncture practices are built exactly the same. There are some imitation-type acupuncture practices that use incorrect needles or different-sized needles that are not true to traditional acupuncture practice, which could be associated with more adverse reactions and risks.

A Word From Verywell

While there is some promising research to support acupuncture during pregnancy, there isn't enough high-quality evidence for acupuncture to be routinely recommended for pregnant women.

However, the risks and costs of acupuncture during pregnancy are very low (and sometimes covered by insurance). If you are interested in trying the practice to manage your pregnancy symptoms or incorporating acupuncture into your pain relief plan for birth, be sure to speak to your doctor about your options.

If your doctor gives you the go-ahead, be sure to find a practitioner who specializes in pregnancy acupuncture and check that they are licensed and certified with the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM).

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  2. Soliday E, Hapke P. Research on acupuncture in pregnancy and childbirth: The U.S. contribution. Med Acupunct. 2013;25(4):252-260. doi:10.1089/acu.2012.0950

  3. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Approaches to Limit Intervention During Labor and Birth. Published December 2018.

  4. Ee CC, Manheimer E, Pirotta MV, White AR. Acupuncture for pelvic and back pain in pregnancy: A systematic review. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2008;198(3):254-9.

  5. Chen H, Yang M, Lao L. Acupuncture for women undergoing in vitro fertilization. JAMA. 2018;320(13):1385. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.10538

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