Acupuncture can be safely used to treat a variety of pregnancy related ailments, writes Maeve O’Sullivan
Acupuncture has become a hugely popular therapy worldwide, as it offers woman an effective support and drug-free relief for a multitude of problems that can arise during pregnancy, labour and postpartum health.
There is always a large emphasis on the conception phase of fertility, giving the impression that it is plain sailing once you are pregnant, as you embark on your nine month voyage of ‘glowing’ pure bliss.
However, for many being pregnant is like training for a marathon for the first time, a time filled with excitement, anxiety, low energy, insomnia and 24 hours of nausea.
Research into acupuncture as a medical treatment has grown exponentially in the past 20 years, particularly in the area of obstetrics acupuncture.
When treating a pregnant woman, we do an extensive consultation and form an individualised health plan with each woman.
Outside of treatment (acupuncture) it is also important to look at mindful movement, individualised nutrition and lifestyle factors so the woman feels at her strongest during the different stages of pregnancy.
There are also many interesting Chinese medicine tips to help with ailments during pregnancy, self care, getting ready for labour and postpartum care.
So how does it work?
Acupuncture works by rebalancing and realigning imbalances within your body, so that your body begins to do its own job, to heal and support you.
Chinese Medicine can appear complex and difficult to comprehend, but it is one of the oldest continuous systems of medicine in history.
Going through this wonderful natural process with a natural medicine alongside you to support, is simply worth its weight in gold.
Acupuncture points have high concentrations of nerve endings, mast cells, lymphatics and capillaries, all capable of triggering biochemical and physiological changes in the body, from the subtle to the dramatic.
When a needle is inserted into an acupuncture point, it stimulates the sensory receptor and sets off a chain reaction — the sensory receptor stimulates the nerve, which in turn transmits impulses to the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system.
This complex system of interactions between the brain, hormones and glands is a powerhouse, responsible for regulating a number of bodily processes.
One of the processes that acupuncturists commonly work with is the release of neurotransmitters and endorphins, the body’s natural pain-killing hormones (thought to be some 200 times more potent than morphine).
Endorphins play a significant role in the hormonal system. Acupuncture is also used to release substances that relax the body and regulate serotonin, which affects emotions.
Other physiological effects include increased circulation, decreased inflammation, easing of muscle spasms and increased T-cell count, which supports the immune system
How will acupuncture help me?
Acupuncture in pregnancy is often thought to just treat back pain and nausea but it can help with a multitude of other issues that crop up.
Let me go through some of the areas that I most commonly treat and support in clinic.
Nausea and Vomiting
The most common complaint in the first trimester and one we often treat in the clinic is nausea, vomiting and dry retching, commonly known as morning sickness.
Experiencing morning sickness can be very debilitating, making it difficult to get on with everyday tasks as it doesn’t hit just in the morning as the name may suggest.
Research has shown acupuncture to be a safe and effective treatment for women who experience nausea and dry retching in early pregnancy.
This research also found further benefits for women in energy and vitality, physical and mental health and ability to engage in social activities.
For many women, getting through the first trimester of a pregnancy is the most difficult part of the pregnancy.
Finding a therapy such as acupuncture to help you through can change a lot about how you feel at that particular time.
We find that there is very little understanding, support and knowledge in this area. A woman can very often feel like she needs to carry out her normal day events when her energy is very low.
Acupuncture has a very positive role here in symptom reduction but also in support and guidance.
There is a lot more than can be done than swallowing buckets of ginger tea, when ginger may not even suit their constitution!
Threatened miscarriage involves vaginal bleeding in a pregnancy that remains viable.
This is a common early pregnancy complication with increased risk factors for early pregnancy loss, preterm premature rupture of membranes (PPROM), preterm delivery, low birth weight babies and maternal antepartum haemorrhage.
Currently there are no recommended medical treatment options, rather women receive advice that centres on a ‘wait and see’ approach. Within fertility research, acupuncture demonstrates beneficial hormonal responses with decreased miscarriage rates, raising the possibility acupuncture may promote specific beneficial effects in early pregnancy.
When women were diagnosed with threatened miscarriage, a small randomised control trial demonstrated that acupuncture was safe and significantly relived symptoms such as cramping, vaginal bleeding, back ache and anxiety compared to a control group (Betts et al 2012).
I feel that this is a vital area that needs further research, acupuncture can play a huge role not only in supporting these woman but forming part of a treatment option rather than just send them home to sit and wait to see what happens.
This, alongside nausea and vomiting, is the most common ailment that I treat in clinic.
Lumbo pelvic pain is in the lower torso, lower back, and pelvic girdle and is frequently experienced by pregnant women.
Acupuncture and cupping are safe and effective treatments for lumbo pelvic pain during pregnancy.
Researchers conducted an observational study at a hospital-based community antenatal clinic in New Zealand and determined that acupuncture produces significant positive patient outcomes, including reductions in lumbo pelvic pain levels.
Acupuncture provides an important alternative treatment option because many common prescription drugs and over-the-counter analgesics are not recommended during pregnancy.
Moxibustion at acupuncture point BL67 is effective and safe to correct non-vertex presentation when used between 33 and 35 weeks of gestation.
There is a point on the foot named “capsize” after it’s a long-tested function in returning a baby in breech to the correct position.
Modern research has shown treatment using this point can turn a baby in breech with a success rate of 80%.
This is something that the couple can do themselves at home under the guidance of an acupuncturist or trained midwife.
It’s important to acknowledge that acupuncture is not a substitute for western medical care during your pregnancy. Acupuncture can provide many complementary benefits but it is vital that you see a qualified healthcare professional on a regular basis to monitor the progress of your pregnancy.
The optimum approach to intervention during pregnancy is an integrated approach, where both medicines work alongside each other to support the mother and baby. That is where the gold lies.
Maeve O’Sullivan is an acupuncturist and Chinese medicine therapist.
She is also co-founder of Escapada Health Retreat and Clinic. For more information click here.
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