If you think acupuncture is an ‘alternative’ therapy that is a bit hit and miss, you’re not alone.
Recently, it’s become a very popular choice for pregnant women wanting to induce labor.
Acupuncture is a 2000+-year-old practice that originated in China. It’s been tried, tested, and documented repeatedly around the world. It was even recognized by the World Health Organization as a treatment for over 100 conditions.
Most people see modern medicine as the best available approach to any health condition. It’s usually considered to be the ‘gold standard’ and the superior care in current society.
That’s why we rarely hear family doctors recommending Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to complement or replace medical treatments.
In hospitals in China, however, many doctors do their rounds using acupuncture to assist patients with their treatment.
If your due date is fast approaching and you’re thinking of using acupuncture to induce labor, here is some more information, and answers to the most commonly asked questions.
Acupuncture to induce labor
Acupuncture involves the use of special thin needles, inserted at various points around your body, to stimulate your central nervous system.
This causes a release of certain chemicals into your brain, spinal cord, and muscles.
As you’ll see below, there are specific points that relate to ripening the cervix and inducing contractions.
Before choosing acupuncture for labor induction, it’s important to address why you want to do it.
Are you just over being pregnant? Or there’s a certain date you do or don’t want to give birth on? Maybe your care provider is hinting about labor induction at 41 weeks.
Any form of starting labor before it happens on its own is still induction. Even natural methods still interfere with the process of birth, which has its own way to unfold.
There are certainly times when induction is medically necessary. These are the times when acupuncture can be a positive intervention.
Is acupuncture for induction safe for me and my baby?
There is very little research into the safety of acupuncture for labor.
In a review of the available research, which was done to look for adverse events, it was found that when correctly used, acupuncture during pregnancy is safe for mothers and babies.
The important thing is to choose a registered practitioner, who also has experience and knowledge of acupuncture treatment. Always check your practitioner is registered with the governing body, as this protects you from sub-standard practices.
Most risks are associated with acupuncture are general soreness, redness, or infection at the insertion sites, and injury from needles placed too deeply.
When should I start acupuncture for labor?
Generally, most women start treatment around 4 weeks before their due date.
Keep in mind, your acupuncture therapist will begin a series of treatments that aim to build the positive benefits, so by the time your due date comes around, the treatment should be effective.
Your practitioner should be aware of any medical concerns or potential complications with your pregnancy. This will be a guide to the best way to plan your treatment.
Is acupuncture painful?
Acupuncture needles are very thin and, when inserted, shouldn’t be painful. The needles can cause temporary soreness, but this will usually go away with 24 hours of your treatment.
Some points could be stimulated more than others, and the release can cause soreness that lasts a few days. In some cases, bruising can also occur at the site, but this isn’t as common as soreness.
Your acupuncturist will warn you about this before you leave your appointment.
Where do acupuncture needles go to induce labor?
During a typical first session, your acupuncturist will take a full medical and pregnancy history.
The next steps:
- The acupuncturist will take a quick look at your tongue
- Your pulse will be taken at the wrists
- You will get comfortable on the table, with pillows
- You will either lie on your most comfortable side or sit, propped up.
Then once you’re very relaxed, there will be 20–40 mins of treatment. Your belly is supported during this time, and no needles will go near your belly in a typical session.
The acupuncture points listed below are used for labor induction by qualified acupuncturists only:
- BL67 – located on the little toe near the edge of the nail, and used to stimulate contractions
- LI4 – found in the thick part of the muscle between the thumb and index finger; it stimulates contractions and bearing down
- SP6 – found above the ankle on the outside of the leg; this point encourages the cervix to ripen
- GV20 – located in the middle of the head; this point lifts energy but is also calming.
Is acupuncture effective for inducing labor?
Like any induction method that’s considered natural, there are those who swear by it and those who don’t believe it achieves anything.
Going into labor after a spicy curry or bouncing on a ball, for example, is as much about timing as anything else. It’s hard to claim these methods definitely worked to start labor. It’s more complicated than that.
When you enter the last weeks of pregnancy, your body is already doing work that you can’t see. Your cervix is ripening, getting ready for contractions to start. Your baby is putting on the finishing touches needed for life outside the womb.
Acupuncture works to release tension and energy blockages in the body, encouraging the process shift. It’s not about forcing labor to start immediately.
For this reason, the term induction isn’t really appropriate. Acupuncture isn’t intended to cause birth to happen, rather than to encourage the unfolding process to happen.
There is very little research into how effective acupuncture is in inducing labor, and the evidence we do have looks at different outcomes.
For example, this review of 22 trials compared to acupuncture or acupressure with placebo or other labor induction methods.
The results were encouraging and showed that acupuncture encouraged cervical ripening. However, the researchers didn’t find any evidence that acupuncture reduced the need for a c-section.
How long does it take for acupuncture to induce labor?
Most women just want to know how long it takes, after having acupuncture, for labor to start.
Again, the research isn’t robust when it comes to measuring the outcomes of this method of induction.
The Cochrane Library reviewed the available research on acupuncture for labor induction. In the review, the researchers cited this small study from 1974, showing the average time from induction to birth was 13.1 hours.
How long it takes for any induction method to work depends on how ready your baby and your body are for labor to begin.
Labor is a process that takes time.
For more information, be sure to read What Causes Labour To Start?
Are there any side effects after acupuncture to induce labor?
When done properly by a trained professional, acupuncture during pregnancy is safe and has few risks. There can be some side effects, such as:
- Mild bleeding from insertion sites
- Infection at the insertion sites
- Injury from needles placed too deeply.
After treatment, your practitioner might recommend that you rest, or do some gentle exercise. The follow-up will depend on the treatment you have.
Be mindful of your baby’s movements in the time following your treatment. Watch for any changes in the normal pattern; some babies will respond to your new state of relaxation by being more active.
There might also be an increase in Braxton-Hicks; it varies according to each individual.
Acupuncture in pregnancy – risks
Overall, more research is required to assess the risks of acupuncture in pregnancy. In very rare instances after acupuncture treatment, some women might experience:
- Local internal bleeding
- Hepatitis B dermatitis
- Nerve damage
- Increased pain
- Injury to an internal organ (very rarely)
These types of reactions are more likely to happen after treatment by poorly skilled practitioners. It’s very important providers know what they are doing.
Can I have acupuncture along with other therapies?
Acupuncture is often used in conjunction with other therapies, particularly Traditional Chinese Medicine therapy.
During pregnancy, acupuncture is often combined with:
- Chiropractic adjustments
- Physical therapy
- Traditional Chinese Medicine herbs
Please make sure your practitioner is qualified to administer herbs and has experience in this specific area of expertise.
More information can be found in Acupuncture & Traditional Chinese Medicine: Chris Tang
Always discuss with your care provider how appropriate these therapies are for you and your particular situation.
Can I have acupuncture if I have existing health conditions?
If you have existing health conditions, you should talk to your doctor before starting any acupuncture treatment. It’s important to know whether your health condition or any medication you might be taking, could be a problem.
You should also make sure the acupuncture therapist is aware of all your existing health conditions and medications, so your treatment can be adjusted, as needed.
Acupuncture is used as a complementary treatment, to manage symptoms for many different health problems. Your therapist will advise you about the most appropriate way to encourage labor, alongside any medical treatment you’re already having.
Is induction acupuncture safe for someone who’s had a cesarean?
If you’re hoping to have a vaginal birth after a c-section (VBAC) then acupuncture can definitely be part of your strategy to achieve this.
As long as you’re still pregnant, then it’s not too late to have a session. Acupuncture can be started at any stage; among Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners, there are different opinions and preferences.
If you’re experiencing anxiety about having a VBAC, then the effects of acupuncture can be incredibly beneficial.
Acupuncture can also be a very relaxing and calming way to wind down ahead of your baby’s birth.
Acupuncture for birth preparation
If you have acupuncture before labor, induction of labor, or even a c-section, you will reap the benefits of a calm and positive mindset.
Acupuncture can help your body make more endorphins, which are natural pain killers.
Research has shown acupuncture and acupressure are very useful in relieving labor pain.
During labor, as your contractions intensify, your body makes endorphins. As the levels of these hormones rise, so does your level of oxytocin, the hormone responsible for contractions.
In the use of acupuncture, the treatment principles are:
- To calm the mind and promote rest
- To strengthen the energy, for when the contractions start
- The gentle movement of energy, to help the baby find the correct position, if not yet engaged, or to engage further. Moving of energy also helps the mother’s physical processes occur in a timely fashion.
The end result is when labor starts, the mother is ready to birth to her baby, and the baby is ready to arrive at the same time.
Can acupuncture help me after birth?
After the birth of your new baby, your body has many adjustments to make. You’re not just recovering from birth or c-section, your body is recovering from nine months of physical change.
Birth is often thought of as taking the greatest toll on a woman’s body. Pregnancy, with the physical demands it puts on your body, however, is possibly the hardest to recover from.
Acupuncture can assist by strengthening your mind-body connection to speed up recovery.
Usually, you won’t have any needles for the first few weeks after giving birth.
Some practitioners will utilize ‘mother warming’ to put energy back into the uterus and calm bleeding. Mother warming is the use of moxibustion, which is the burning of the herb mugwort near acupuncture points.
Are there any other natural ways of inducing labor?
There are other suggested methods for inducing labor. Although they might be natural, keep in mind they are still regarded as intervention, and we can never know whether the baby was going to arrive anyway, or whether the method has worked.
Natural labor methods include:
- Gutter walking – find a kerb on the roadside and step up and down, alternating left and right feet
- Steps up and down
- Stretch and sweep
- Evening primrose oil
- Spicy food
- Sexual intercourse
- Nipple stimulation
See more here: How To Bring On Labour Naturally – 11 Natural Methods
Please note we aren’t recommending you try all of these. Always check with your doctor before doing any intervention.
What is the quickest way to induce labor?
This depends on how your body responds to the induction of labor and which method you choose to induce labor.
A medical induction of labor could be more painful than natural labor, and might take between hours and days.
In natural labor induction, the contractions build up slowly, but in medical induction of labor, they can start more quickly and be much stronger.
We have discussed natural methods of induction, and these methods will generally take some time to get contractions going.
Medical induction methods might be quicker, but the uterine contractions will be more intense and you could require pain relief as this is not part of the natural rhythm of labor.
Medical labor induction methods include:
- Cervidil tape of gel. Prostaglandin is inserted into the cervix to soften it (cervical ripening) and start labor
- Membrane sweep. Gloved fingers are inserted through the cervix to ‘sweep around’ the inside of the cervix
- Cooks catheter. A catheter is inserted through the cervix. It has a balloon on the end, which is inflated to open the cervix
- Intravenous synthetic oxytocin, which goes into the vein to induce labor
- Artificially breaking the waters (ARM)
There is no way of being sure how quickly you will go into labor and birth, regardless of whether you try natural induction methods or medical induction methods. All pregnant women are different.
If your baby was ready to arrive, the time before going into labor might be shorter. You might have gone into spontaneous labor and thought the induction method had started the labor contractions.
You may find these articles helpful: Induction of Labour – What Are The Risks Of Being Induced? and Why All Inductions Are Not The Same – 5 Induction Methods
“I was so skeptical about acupuncture until I found out I was pregnant.
“I had a huge panic attack and ended up in the hospital, as my heart rate was very high. I had severe insomnia, I couldn’t drink or eat for three days, and my weight dropped dramatically. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t get my heart to slow down, and I was getting very concerned about the baby.
“I found a great acupuncturist who was absolutely amazing and I will continue to see her for years to come. Within two months of acupuncture treatments on a fortnightly basis, I was able to not only control but actually get rid of the anxiety.
“I continued to see my acupuncturist throughout my pregnancy for different reasons, as I no longer needed anxiety treatment. She assisted with headaches, huge, breakouts and morning sickness. Near the end of my pregnancy she induced me at 40 weeks (I was given a deadline due to a previous cesarean) and that night I had the show. Soon after, my son was born vaginally in 10-minute active labor.
“My anxiety had a lot to do with the previous cesarean and death in the family. I continue to go to acupuncture every 3 months and it’s for pure relaxation” – Daniela