When you think about what happens during pregnancy, you might not be thinking about acupuncture, but maybe you should. Acupuncture is a Chinese medical practice that has been around for about 2,500 years, so it must be doing some things right.
Use of acupuncture during pregnancy and delivery is more common in China and Europe than it is in the United States. Acupuncture is quite common during pregnancy and childbirth in China. In Europe, up to 13 percent of women use acupuncture as part of pregnancy. Probably not so much in the United States. Although the actual number of pregnant women using acupuncture in the U.S. is not known, a recent review of research on pregnancy and acupuncture done in the U.S. found very few studies, less than one-third the number done in Europe.
According to the Chinese, acupuncture works by restoring the smooth flow of energy – called Qi – through the body. This energy travels in channels beneath the skin called meridians. Pregnancy may upset energy flow and acupuncture may be a way to restore energy balance. This concept fits nowhere in the knowledge base of Western medical theory or practice. But that may be changing.
How Might Acupuncture Help During Pregnancy?
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), studies suggest that acupuncture works best for chronic pain, especially low back pain. Back pain is common during pregnancy, so that’s one possibility. There is also good research to support the safety of acupuncture, as long as it is given by a well-trained practitioner. Pregnancy conditions in which acupuncture has been used include:
- Morning sickness
- High or low blood pressure
- Back pain
- Labor pain
- Breech birth
What Do the Studies Show?
According to NIH, several studies show support for acupuncture to treat headache and back pain. A study from Germany found that acupuncture during in vitro fertilization improved pregnancy rates. A type of treatment that combines acupuncture with an herb called moxa – moxabustion – has been shown to successfully turn breech babies into headfirst babies. Some other studies include:
- An Australian study showing improvement in morning sickness
- A Stanford University study showing improvement in depression
- Four other US studies showing improvement in nausea and vomiting, pain, and depression
It is important to remember that a few small studies are not reliable indicators of success. According to NIH, the best evidence on acupuncture is for long-term pain. Evidence for other benefits in pregnancy are debatable. Some studies find benefits. Others do not.
It is accepted that acupuncture is safe, and that is important during pregnancy. Possible complications are skin infection or nerve damage. These risks are extremely low with a well-trained provider. Ask your obstetric care provider if you should try acupuncture. Make sure to see a licensed acupuncture practitioner. Acupuncture practitioners need to be licensed in most states.