You might think sticking needles into your skin as a form of pain relief is counterproductive.
But, far from being an obscure treatment, acupuncture is growing in popularity.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the US, around 3.1 million people tried acupuncture in 2007.
Acupuncture is used worldwide, to ease the discomfort of a number of painful conditions. In Australia, it is growing in popularity, as an adjunct to IVF treatment.
So can this ancient pain relief technique be used for women who are in labour? And how safe is it?
What Is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture had its origins in China, over 2,000 years ago. This makes it one of the oldest known systems of health care in the world.
The principles of acupuncture are based on beliefs about the life energy that flows through channels in the body. Blockages in these channels can disrupt the normal flow of energy and cause disease, or symptoms, such as pain.
Practitioners insert thin needles into the skin, at various points on the body – to clear blockages, and to encourage the normal flow of energy.
How Does Acupuncture Work?
Acupuncture points are places where nerves, muscles, and connective tissue can be stimulated. Stimulation increases blood flow, and triggers the release of endorphins – our body’s natural painkillers. These natural painkillers are several times more potent than morphine – a narcotic drug used to relieve severe pain.
Western medical science doesn’t really agree about exactly how acupuncture works, but there are several theories. One is based on neuroscience; the theory is that the needle stimulates the nerves, which send messages to the brain to release hormones.
Another theory is that acupuncture reduces inflammatory proteins in the body, leading to a lessening of inflammation and pain.
Interestingly, doctors and mainstream medical institutions are accepting of acupuncture as a mode of treatment – particularly for pain relief. Many doctors encourage their patients to have acupuncture, especially if conventional medicine isn’t helpful, or has too many side effects.
Can Acupuncture Relieve Labour Pain?
Given that about 50% of women will have an epidural during labour, is acupuncture treatment an option for pain relief?
Like all procedures that intervene in the natural birth process, epidurals have risks. They also tend to cause contractions to slow down, prolonging labour, and increasing the need for assistance, as part of the cascade of intervention.
You can find out more in Everything You Need To Know About Epidurals.
There has been quite a lot of research into the use of acupuncture treatment for acute and chronic pain, and some studies show promising results. There is less research into how acupuncture can be useful during labour.
One study looked at the effectiveness of acupuncture as a pain relief treatment. It showed that women who had acupuncture treatment had less pain, at all stages of labour than those who didn’t. The study noted there were no differences in the length of the stages of labour, which indicates acupuncture doesn’t affect labour in the way epidurals do.
A review of studies identified three clinical trials that were of a high enough quality to make conclusions about the effectiveness of acupuncture. In all three trials, no adverse effects of acupuncture were noted.
In one trial, the use of acupuncture during labour lowered the use of other methods of pain relief by 20%. This included epidurals, pethidine, nitrous oxide, and water injections.
In another trial, the number of requests for epidurals was reduced by almost half, in women who received conventional care. Women who received acupuncture reported significantly higher levels of relaxation. They were also less likely to request non-medication forms of pain relief, such as TENS, water, or heat packs.
The third trial found women who had acupuncture during labour reported less pain at 30 minutes, 1 hour, and 2 hours after receiving the treatment, as well as at 2 hours after giving birth.
The number of requests for pethidine and epidurals also decreased. Most notably, women who had acupuncture required less use of artificial oxytocin to augment labour.
Is Acupuncture Safe?
When performed by a skilled and trained practitioner, acupuncture is a safe and effective treatment for pain relief. It is not necessary to believe in the underlying philosophy of acupuncture in order for it to be effective.
It is important to ensure any practitioner offering acupuncture treatment practises strict hygiene procedures to avoid infection at insertion sites, and uses pre-sterilised, single-use, and disposable acupuncture needles.
An unskilled practitioner can cause a number of problems, such as bruising or injury, if needles are not inserted properly. Acupuncture stimulates the nervous system and, if it is not performed properly, can cause an increase in pain, as well as other problems.
What Are The Benefits Of Acupuncture During Labour?
The key positives of acupuncture, in the hands of a skilled practitioner, are that women experience less pain, and they are less likely to ask for pharmacological pain relief.
Acupuncture brings on a state of relaxation, which is important for women during labour. When you are relaxed, and your muscles are not tense, this can affect how much pain you feel during labour.
Being relaxed and in a non-stressed state allows your body to produce oxytocin, the hormone responsible for effective contractions. Stress hormones slow the release of oxytocin, and can cause labour to stall or be prolonged. Acupuncture can help to avoid unnecessary interventions for failure to progress, or prolonged labour.
While the use of acupuncture treatment during labour appears to have many benefits, it’s unlikely to become a mainstream method of pain relief in hospitals. The practice of traditional Chinese medicine is based on principles that are very different from those of conventional Western medicine.
Acupuncture is given according to individual needs. This one-to-one care is not often supported in maternity hospitals.
Women who wish to have acupuncture during labour might need to find a private practitioner who is willing to attend them during labour; this could be cost prohibitive. However, women who prefer to avoid medications, and the cascade of interventions, might find it to be worth the expense.