Can Acupuncture Treat Your Pregnancy Symptoms?

acupuncture needle is inserted into the hand of someone wearing a pink floral shirt and nail polish


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Pregnancy can be a joyful and exciting time in your life, but it can also sometimes be uncomfortable and stressful. To make matters worse, many of your usual remedies (like OTC pain relievers, takeout sushi, and cabernet) are off-limits, which means it’s harder than ever to actually feel better.

No one could blame you, then, for wondering if something like acupuncture—which doesn’t involve putting anything into your body except the end point of a sterile needle—could help relieve your most annoying pregnancy symptoms. But can it really help you, or is the evidence all anecdotal? And if it can help, is it safe?

Here’s everything you need to know about using acupuncture to treat your pregnancy symptoms (including which ones might benefit the most from this ancient form of Chinese medicine). 

How Does Acupuncture Work?

You know acupuncture involves the careful placement of needles in key spots all over your body. But you may not connect the dots for how those needles could have any effect on something like stomach upset, for example. The needles don’t go anywhere near your internal organs! So how does acupuncture work, exactly?

“Acupuncture regulates the messaging systems of your body, interacting with your nerves and changing the messages being sent through them,” explains licensed acupuncturist Sarah Coles Mckeown, founder of Bloom Acupuncture in New York City. “For someone [whose nerves send] extreme pain messages, acupuncture can dial down that messaging.”

According to Coles Mckeown, who compares our bodies to old-fashioned radios and acupuncture needles to antennae, when the needles are placed correctly they can be “tuned” to improve the functions your body is already doing (like digesting, breathing, circulating blood, and so on). 

Currently, we honestly don’t know much more than that. 

“Science is still figuring out how acupuncture actually works, but it seems to come down to brain signal modulation,” says Stephanie Gianarelli, LAc, clinic director at Acupuncture NW & Associates in Washington state. “Even though science is still nailing [it] down, there is plenty of research to show that it does, indeed work, for many issues.” 

What the research says

Scientists have been studying for years what happens in the brain during acupuncture; through MRI imaging, various forms of research (like this review from 2012 and this study from 2014) have demonstrated that areas of the brain associated with pain modulation are, in fact, influenced by acupuncture treatment. 

Can You Get Acupuncture While Pregnant?

This is where things get a bit tricky. There is no evidence that acupuncture is harmful to a mother or baby, but pregnant participants also aren’t included in clinical trials regarding the safety of acupuncture (because that would be unethical). 

Not only do licensed acupuncturists frequently work with pregnant patients, many of these acupuncturists have specialized training in women’s health, infertility, and prenatal and postpartum care. That suggests that not only is acupuncture safe in most cases, but could actually be beneficial. If possible, choose an acupuncturist who specializes in pregnancy care. 

While it’s important to remember that there is no clear evidence stating that acupuncture is safe during pregnancy, there’s no reason to believe it’s dangerous, either.

“There is widespread use of acupuncture across the general population, and the complication rate in very large studies is very low,” says OBGYN Andrea Campaigne, M.D. at Austin Regional Clinic. “It has a 1,000-year history of safety, including an overlap in women’s health issues.”

Dr. Campaigne adds that patients ask her frequently about the relative safety of all kinds of things during pregnancy, such as using certain beauty products, and unless there is clear evidence contraindicating use, she prefers to empower her patients to make those decisions for themselves.  

“[In many cases] these are parenting decisions and you have to weigh your own risk versus reward,” she says. “Even though there aren’t studies, that doesn’t mean it isn’t safe.”

If you’re considering acupuncture during pregnancy, make sure your acupuncturist knows you’re pregnant. Coles Mckeown says there are a few acupuncture points that licensed professionals know to stay away from until the end of pregnancy because they could stimulate labor.

How Can It Help With Symptoms?

Acupuncture can be a primary or secondary treatment for common pregnancy symptoms; in fact, all of the experts we interviewed stress that it works the best when this ancient Eastern form of medicine meets traditional Western medicine halfway, with the two strategies complementing—rather than working against—one another.

Where acupuncture can really come in handy is with treating symptoms that are notoriously hard to treat during pregnancy because of pregnancy safety categories (think headaches, because of the limitations on OTC pain relievers, and nausea, because of concerns about anti-nausea medications).

“We always recommend that our patients tell their Western provider about everything that is going on with them,” says Gianarelli. “Pregnancy [symptoms] run along a spectrum, with [the things] acupuncture and Chinese medicine can treat on one end and [the things] Western medicine traditionally treats on the other end.”

Ideally, Gianarelli adds, the two medicines blend in the middle.

“When someone is pregnant, they and [their provider] are often less willing to resort to medications to ease their symptoms,” says Gianarelli. “Because acupuncture can offer a safe way to treat many of these symptoms, both health care providers and patients alike often seek out Chinese medicine to help reduce symptoms related to pregnancy.” 

What Symptoms Does It Help With?

Being pregnant means your new full-time job is basically managing all those annoying and uncomfortable symptoms. Here are some of the more common symptoms acupuncture can treat.

Nausea and Morning Sickness

Not finding relief from morning sickness with ginger ale and saltines? Acupuncture might be able to help—but not in all situations, warns Coles Mckeown. 

“The women I see regularly before they conceive have more manageable nausea than the women who come to me after,” she says, noting that this is purely anecdotal (but something she has definitely observed). 

She also says that patients with severe forms of nausea may have less luck with an acupuncture-only treatment, though acupuncture could provide additional relief when someone is on prescription medication for nausea and vomiting.

Lastly, Coles Mckeown stresses again the importance of seeing an acupuncturist trained in treating pregnancy symptoms, since they may also be able to counsel you on dietary or lifestyle changes that could help you feel even better.

Fatigue

A fair amount of research has been done on the effects of acupuncture on extreme fatigue, especially in the treatment of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS). There isn’t anything definitive or conclusive yet, and many of the studies have mitigating factors (like limited data and a high risk of bias). 

Still, there is a clear potential for improvement of fatigue symptoms through acupuncture; one 2019 review of studies published in "Acupuncture in Medicine" found acupuncture to reduce fatigue severity better than other similar alternative therapies.

At the very least, having regular acupuncture sessions during pregnancy guarantees you’ll have dedicated time to rest each week. 

“It’s a calming period of time when you can nap and take time for yourself in a productive way,” explains Coles Mckeown.

Gastrointestinal Issues 

Along with pain management, acupuncture may be most often recommended for GI and digestive issues. Coles Mckeown says it can be hugely helpful for regulating the bowels, helping to resolve the bloating and constipation that happens so commonly during pregnancy; she says it can also be beneficial for pregnant acid reflux-sufferers, too. 

Since some of these digestive woes are tough to treat during pregnancy—many OTC products, like laxatives, antacids, and diuretics are off-limits due to safety concerns—using acupuncture to regulate your digestive function instead makes sense.

Aches and Pains

Pregnancy can hurt—and not just the labor and delivery part! Lower back pain, pelvic pain, sciatica, and carpal tunnel syndrome are common during all nine months of pregnancy, and while Coles Mckeown says there are some limitations (you can’t lie face down on an acupuncture table when pregnant, for example), most typical acupuncture treatments for pain management can be safely performed.

And an herbal heat therapy, called moxibustion, may be especially beneficial: “There are many different ways to do it, [but basically] it warms the body and boosts the yang energy,” says Coles Mckeown. “It’s incredibly effective for back pain in pregnancy, even without the use of needles.” 

Stress and Anxiety

Acupuncture can help bring down any existing stress hormones, reducing cortisol levels and benefitting both you and your baby. While cortisol levels naturally increase during pregnancy to help your baby’s neural development, too much can do the opposite, per a 2017 study in "BMC Psychiatry.”

"Acupuncture is often a stress reliever, even if the person didn’t come in specifically for stress reduction,” says Gianarelli. “[When you bring down your cortisol levels, you] reduce cortisol exposure to the baby, which can have a lifelong effect on that child.”

If you’re wondering whether acupuncture can truly reduce stress, there are studies to back that up, too: a 2014 study and a 2017 study both showed reductions in stress levels among participants receiving regular acupuncture (but it should be noted that these studies were small, and broader research is needed). 

Labor Preparation

According to Gianarelli, acupuncture can be vital therapy in the weeks leading up to the birth of your baby—especially if the baby is in a breech position, i.e. feet-down. Per a 2012 Cochrane Library abstract, acupuncture may trigger a series of “biochemical events” that stimulate the baby to move around and get themselves into a head-down position.

Not only can it help turn a breech baby, she says, possibly avoiding the need for a C-section, it can prime your body for the labor and delivery process. 

“We have all of our patients come in starting at 36 weeks to start labor prep,” she says. “Our goal is to have a pregnant person’s body prepared for labor by their due date; this means cervical dilation and labor starting on time.” 

In addition to prepping the pregnant body for labor, Gianarelli says she also empowers birthing partners to provide acupressure treatment during delivery and the postpartum period: “We teach partners in a one-hour online course how to do acupressure, [which] gives the partner a vital and effective role leading up to and during labor [and also] allows them to be more included in the process.”

Miscellaneous

Pregnancy affects everyone differently, so there’s no telling which symptoms you will or won’t have during those nine months. But one of the across-the-board benefits to acupuncture is its relative safety, especially compared to other treatments (many of which should be avoided or, at the very least, used with serious caution during pregnancy). 

This list of hard-to-treat-during-pregnancy ailments includes headaches and migraines, insomnia, depression, and spotting or bleeding, confirms Coles Mckeown. Though acupuncture isn’t a magic trick that erases your most complicated pregnancy symptoms, it can—sometimes—make the use of OTC or prescription drugs unnecessary or more effective, meaning you may be able to get by with a lower drug or more infrequent use. 

Should Anyone Avoid Acupuncture While Pregnant?

In otherwise healthy pregnancies, there’s no reason to avoid acupuncture. Even with something like gestational hypertension, says Gianarelli, the recommendation isn’t necessarily to avoid (because acupuncture can help!) but to co-manage your hypertension with your acupuncturist and your doctor.

“Under the care of your Western provider, you can be watched or even medicated at the same time that you are getting acupuncture to help reduce your blood pressure, since it can often drop 10 to 15 points while on the acupuncture table,” she explains. 

Dr. Campaigne notes that anyone with a bleeding disorder, however, should probably not opt for a treatment that involves needles (just to be on the safe side). There is also something to be said, she warns, for people who are mentally resistant to the possible benefits of acupuncture.

“If I say to a patient, ‘One thing you have access to that’s cost-effective is acupuncture,’ and they give me a face like ‘I would never try that,’ there’s nothing I can do to combat that amount of anxiety or insecurity to help them be successful in that plan,” she says. “If you have a [huge] mental block against acupuncture, it won’t work.”

A Word from Verywell Family

Like any other health decision during pregnancy, choosing to treat your symptoms with acupuncture should be discussed with your OBGYN or midwife. Although there is not any data proving its safety during pregnancy, acupuncture has a long history of safety in the general population and a long history of effectiveness for pain management, mental relaxation, and a myriad of women’s health issues. 

The bottom line: it’s most likely safe to try and has a good chance of improving at least one of your pregnancy symptoms, but you should still get approval from your regular provider.

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