Acupressure and acupuncture: pain relief for pregnancy and labour

The benefits of acupressure and acupuncture during pregnancy and labour go far beyond pain relief, and best of all, birth partners can help in some instances. Midwife and trained acupuncturist Debra Betts, supervisor at Hutt Hospital Maternity Acupuncture, runs acupuncture and acupressure workshops with Kiwi midwives, and says these treatments are now a popular option for treating a range of pregnancy-related conditions including emotional and physical exhaustion. She also highlights the use of acupressure as a useful pain relief tool that birth partners can help with.

What are the common pregnancy-specific issues that acupuncture and acupressure can help with?

Acupuncture can be used for a wide range of pregnancy complaints. Many of the so-called ‘minor’ complaints such as nausea, back and pelvic pain, heart burn, haemorrhoids, headaches and insomnia (which are not so minor when you’re experiencing them), respond well to acupuncture treatment. One of the most common acupuncture treatments at the Hutt Hospital Acupuncture Maternity clinic is labour preparation, where we assist with cervical ripening and optimal positioning of the baby, breech babies and blood pressure issues, and help with the physical and emotional demands of those last few weeks of pregnancy.  

What is acupressure as opposed to acupuncture?

Acupressure is a non-evasive, easy-to-use technique where the woman controls which points she wants pressed and the amount of pressure on them. Although it sounds too simple to be useful, we have research demonstrating that acupressure can provide measurable pain relief in labour. The most recent research found that when taught antenatally along with other complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) interventions, acupressure reduced epidural and c-section rates. Interestingly, acupressure was one of the most frequently used interventions by the women in this study.

It can be empowering for your birth partner to be able to actually do something practical to help while you're in pain. Click here to check out Debra's detailed explanation of acupressure in labour for childbirth pain relief.

Can you outline how acupuncture and acupressure works to relieve the most common pregnancy conditions, and to help induce labour?

It is still not fully understand how acupuncture and acupressure work – there are many ideas. Chinese medicine theory says it involves stimulating special energy pathways to bring about beneficial changes. Western medicine explanations involve specific biomedical responses such as the body’s own pain-relieving opioid mechanisms and hormones. Interestingly, when functional MRI scanning is used, researchers can see the brain responding to a needle placed anywhere in the body, but there’s a different response when a needle is placed in a specific acupuncture point. I see acupuncture as a way of triggering the body to restore itself to a state of homeostasis or internal balance. The body is continually adapting to physical and emotional stresses and acupuncture can influence this in a beneficial way. Acupuncture can work to reduce the pain and inflammation of physical pregnancy changes such as back and pelvic pain, and help women to relax and deal with emotional stress, as well as encourage the cervix to ripen and the uterus to contract when appropriate.

What are some of the fears women have about the safety of acupuncture during pregnancy? Can you allay them?

The safety of using any therapy in pregnancy is obviously a concern but it’s reassuring that the research is very clear: acupuncture provided by an experienced acupuncturist is safe in pregnancy. Unfortunately, not all pregnancies are trouble-free but studies comparing women receiving acupuncture to women receiving usual care, find no increased incidence of any pregnancy-related adverse effects. As the needles are very fine, treatment is not comparable to having a blood test and even minor adverse events such pain at the needle site, bruising or fainting are unusual. The usual response to an acupuncture treatment in pregnancy is for the women to feel a slight heaviness, or a warm or achy feeling around the acupuncture point. Women also often report feeling relaxed, with some even falling asleep! 

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