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Can Acupuncture During Labor Help Relieve Pain?

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Welcoming a new life into the world is a one-of-a-kind experience, but the journey of labor and delivery can also bring about intense sensations and discomfort. For expectant mothers and parents seeking alternative methods of pain management during labor, acupuncture offers a millennia-old practice that continues to pique curiosity and interest. Can acupuncture during labor truly provide relief? As you prepare to welcome your little one into the world, know that you’re not alone. Let’s explore this question together.

Understanding Labor Pain

In a previous article, we discussed acupuncture during pregnancy, exploring how it can offer relief and support throughout those precious nine months and help make the childbearing experience one to remember. But as the due date draws near, it’s time to shift our focus to the key moment: the birth itself.

As you await the arrival of your precious little one, you’ve felt their kicks and flutters, watched your belly grow, and eagerly prepared their nursery. But along with this joyful anticipation comes the inevitable: labor pain and thoughts like ‘Can I handle this?’ Pain during labor is natural and an inevitable part of childbirth. As the body prepares for delivery, the uterus contracts rhythmically, causing intense sensations that vary in intensity and duration.

On average, active phase labor length is about 4 to 8 hours or more. For first-time births, the average labor duration for all stages can take 12-24 hours, from the onset of contractions to delivery of the placenta, and about 8-10 hours for subsequent pregnancies. While some individuals may experience shorter labor durations and manageable discomfort, others may encounter prolonged or uncontrolled labor pain throughout the entire duration of labor.

The Traditional Perspective on Acupuncture and Labor Pain

Acupuncture has been practiced in East Asian cultures for over 2,000 years, particularly in China, Korea, and Japan. Rooted in traditional Chinese medicine, it is grounded in ancient philosophies that view the body as a network of interconnected pathways through which vital energy, known as Qi, flows. At the core of this practice lies the concept of meridians – channels that run throughout the body, serving as pathways for Qi circulation.

Thus, acupuncture treatment involves the insertion of fine needles into specific points on the body along these meridians to stimulate energy flow and promote healing. Pain management acupuncture has become increasingly popular in the Western world as an alternative treatment, both in isolation and as complementary therapy, garnering attention for its potential to provide relief, among other benefits.

Acupuncture for labor pain management operates on an equally wonderful principle: tapping into the body’s innate ability to heal, ease, and find balance. During labor, acupuncture treatment targets key acupoints associated with pain relief and relaxation by using thin needle penetration, offering a potential alternative to conventional pain management techniques.

Other Alternative Pain Management Methods

Acupressure for labor pain, the cousin of acupuncture, shares its foundational principles but takes a different route to the same destination. Instead of needles, acupoint acupressure employs the power of touch, utilizing fingers, thumbs, or knuckles to navigate the body’s energy pathways using manual stimulation and firm pressure.

When it comes to different methods of acupuncture, some practitioners also use electro-acupuncture treatments, where needles are connected to wires delivering low- or high-frequency electrical currents instead of traditional manual acupuncture.

Ancient Wisdom in Modern Labor Rooms – How Acupuncture for Labor Pain Management Works

A pregnant woman close to delivery holding a flower thinking about getting acupuncture during labor as a pain management treatment.

Labor pain can be intense, so many parents seek ways to manage it without relying solely on medications. Acupuncture is one method, but the Western medical community doesn’t recognize the concepts of meridians and Qi that we discussed previously. It does, however, recognize acupuncture as a practice, it is just that the underlying mechanisms supporting it are different. So let’s explore how acupuncture during labor (intrapartum acupuncture in modern medical terms) could offer the support and relief you deserve.

Pain Relief

When stimulated, acupoints trigger the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, helping alleviate discomfort during labor. It can also help ease women into active labor by reducing the pain in the pelvic area due to uterine contractions and enhancing blood supply to the womb, influencing contractions. 

Relaxation

Your mind is powerful; it can influence pain perception. Acupuncture can affect the serotonin system in the brain – a neurotransmitter associated with mood regulation, anxiety, and pain perception. By modulating serotonin levels, acupuncture during labor may help alleviate anxiety and stress, indirectly contributing to pain relief and creating a more conducive environment for labor progression. As needles work their magic, tension melts away, enhancing the body’s ability to cope with labor sensations and giving you more control over labor.

Hormonal Balance

Research has validated the impact of targeting specific acupoints on the HPA axis – a system closely linked to both the central nervous and endocrine systems – crucial for regulating hormonal levels and mood. Acupuncture during labor could similarly engage the HPA axis, helping to regulate hormonal fluctuations and promote emotional stability during the intense and transformative birthing process.

Cervical Ripening (for Induced Labor)

Studies have found that acupuncture may increase cervical ripening during induced labor. However, it does not significantly affect the amount of oxytocin (a hormone that stimulates contractions). Thus, it does not shorten the length of induced labor.

Is Acupuncture During Labor Effective and Safe? 

Anecdotal evidence from individuals who have undergone acupuncture during labor highlights the potential short- and long-term benefits of acupuncture. Many report feeling calmer, more focused, and better able to cope with contractions. While word-of-mouth accounts abound, scientific research provides tangible insights into the efficacy of acupuncture during labor. So, what does the current evidence on acupuncture during labor say? 

Does acupuncture reduce labor pain? While more research is needed, some studies examining mothers in spontaneous labor at term suggest that acupuncture during labor may reduce pain intensity, the need for pharmacological pain relief methods, and make the experience more enjoyable. If done by reputable and licensed experts, acupuncture is generally considered safe, with serious side effects being extremely rare.

For example, a Korean study found no significant difference in delivery outcomes (preterm delivery and stillbirth) between confirmed pregnancies in the acupuncture and control groups, concluding that it is ‘a safe therapeutic modality for relieving discomfort without an adverse delivery outcome.’ While minor common acupuncture side effects such as dizziness, drowsiness, and mild bleeding or bruising at the needling site may occur, they are generally mild and temporary.

Unlike pharmacological methods like entonox, opiates, or epidurals, acupuncture is a natural, drug-free method. It also doesn’t increase the risk of requiring assisted delivery methods like ventouse or forceps. Overall, acupuncture offers a natural and safe alternative for pain relief during childbirth, providing potential benefits without the concerns associated with pharmacological interventions.

Evidence-Based Insights from Clinical Studies

A systematic review of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) examined the comparative efficacy of acupuncture or acupressure with placebo, no treatment, or other non-pharmacological pain management methods from 28 clinical studies with data from 3,960 women, both nulliparous (women who have never given birth) and multiparous women (those who have given birth multiple times).

Although there were many study limitations, findings suggest that acupuncture and acupressure offer complementary approaches to pain relief during labor. While the pain reduction may not always be drastic, many women found them helpful in combination with other pain relief methods. There was also evidence of reduced use of pharmacological analgesia by women utilizing acupuncture during labor.

Another randomized, single-blind 2018 clinical trial was performed on 50 primipara (women who have given birth once) mothers; the study findings revealed a notable decrease in pain scores related to labor following acupuncture treatment. Moreover, acupuncture therapy demonstrated effectiveness in alleviating labor pain, enhancing uterine contractions, and expediting phase II of delivery. 

Importantly, no adverse effects were observed on either mothers or babies as a result of acupuncture intervention.

Looking Ahead

A person holding a newborn baby's feet.

While existing research offers promising insights into the potential benefits of acupuncture during labor, further research is needed to deepen our understanding of its mechanisms and effectiveness. Future studies have yet to explore the full scope of the role these alternative and additional modalities play in enhancing pain relief and birth outcomes.

For countless women, the desire for natural pain relief during labor is deeply felt, and in some countries, such as Swedish hospitals, for example, acupuncture stands as a comforting option readily accessible in all delivery units for hospital births. We hope that in the future, this comforting choice will be embraced and made accessible worldwide to anyone who seeks it.

Practical Considerations

If you’re considering complementary and alternative medicine for labor pain, including acupuncture, here are some practical tips to keep in mind:

  • Find a Qualified Practitioner: Seek out a licensed acupuncturist with experience in treating pregnant individuals and labor pain management.
  • Discuss with Your Healthcare Provider: Prior to labor, discuss your interest in acupuncture with your healthcare provider to ensure it aligns with your birth plan and medical history. While complementary and alternative therapies are typically deemed safe, always consult your doctor first.
  • Integration with Other Therapies: Consider incorporating acupuncture as part of a comprehensive approach to pain management, including relaxation techniques, breathing exercises, and support from labor attendants.
  • Timing and Frequency: Acupuncture sessions can begin as early as the third trimester. Yes, pregnancy acupuncture is also a thing, and regular pre-birth treatments may help prepare your body for labor. During labor, acupuncture sessions may vary in duration and frequency, depending on individual needs and preferences. 

Acupuncture During Birth as an Alternative Path to Relief 

Childbirth is a deeply personal journey, and the quest for pain relief during labor may lead you to explore alternative treatments and complementary therapies. Acupuncture during labor offers a holistic approach to pain management, tapping into ancient wisdom and contemporary practices to support individuals on their birthing journey.

Whether you opt for acupuncture, conventional pain management techniques, or a combination of both, as you prepare for your little one’s arrival, you deserve the expertise of a seasoned practitioner. With over 22 years of experience and a specialization in women’s health and reproductive medicine, Dr. Mitra is dedicated to providing personalized, integrative care tailored to your unique needs.

Whether you’re seeking support for fertility, pregnancy, or postpartum care, don’t hesitate to book an acupuncture appointment. Together, we can explore how acupuncture can offer comfort, support, and empowerment during this delicate and transformative moment in your life at our acupuncture clinic in Beverly Hills.

With compassionate care and informed decision-making, you can navigate pregnancy and labor with confidence and courage, welcoming your baby into the world with the love and joy both you and your newborn deserve. Dr. Mitra Daneshrad

 

Make an Appointment: (424) 466-8966