Web Exclusive – March 13, 2009
While I loved having my babies, I should confess: I make a pretty pathetic pregnant woman. I am not the woman who runs around telling everyone that pregnancy is the best time of her life—quite the contrary. For me, it is a nine-month struggle. Halfway through my second pregnancy, I wondered if I was going to make it. I was desperate. I called an acupuncturist. I didn’t know who else to call.
With limited knowledge of Chinese culture or traditional Chinese medicine, I climbed onto her table with a weak, “Please help me.” I was nauseated, and I had heartburn. I would throw up in my sleep. My back and neck pain were so severe, I had recently been hospitalized because I couldn’t walk. The same back trouble was giving me headaches so blinding I couldn’t function. I gained more weight than I should have, which led me down a completely irrational road of guilt. And to top it all off, I suffered from severe depression, though I was not depressed in my normal pre-pregnancy life. I no longer recognized myself. When Cristi, my blessed acupuncturist, said she could help with all of the above, then asked me what I wanted her to work on first, I whimpered, “You choose.”
I believe she began with an overall well-being treatment, though I didn’t ask. She stuck incredibly thin, sterile, disposable needles in my feet, lower legs, wrists, and head, and I lay there, trying not to be anxious. I was 20 weeks along, and I hadn’t yet felt any fetal movement. I attributed this to my own self-involvement and added this deficiency to my mountain of guilt. So there, on Cristi’s skinny little table, I suddenly felt mysteriously warm in the cool room. Warm and, just, well, good. And then, the most amazing thing happened—and it didn’t feel like a butterfly or like gas. It felt like a tiny acrobat flipping around inside my uterus. I grinned. Then he did another cartwheel. I said, “My baby is totally freaking out right now. Is that normal?” I couldn’t see Cristi, but I could hear that she was smiling when she said, “Absolutely! Acupuncture releases endorphins, and babies love it. Mine did, too.” And he didn’t slow down. For ten minutes, my little angel danced the endorphin jig, and I relaxed and cried a little.
I now love acupuncture. While I’m sure acupuncture is great for all phases of life, I can testify that it is particularly amazing for pregnancy. Studies have shown that acupuncture or acupressure, the stimulation of the same points with pressure instead of needles, can help with this plight.1 When I was little, my mother gave me a BioBand bracelet that was supposed to keep me from getting carsick. I remember thinking she was nuts. How could an ugly bracelet do anything? I had no idea then that she, and as a result I, were dabbling in Chinese medicine. Women use those same bracelets to treat morning sickness.
I can tolerate nausea any day compared to back pain. Between 49 and 76 percent of pregnant women suffer from low back or pelvic pain, and it usually worsens as pregnancy progresses. Women with previous back trauma are at a higher risk, as are those with significant weight gain or stressful jobs. I was blessed with all three prerequisites. Also, as the uterus grows, our posture usually changes, which creates an added strain. What’s more, relaxin, the hormone that relaxes our joints and ligaments to facilitate the birth process, adds to the lower back pain. But, studies consistently show that acupuncture can help.2 One study even showed acupuncture to be more beneficial than physical therapy.3
I don’t want to exaggerate so I’ll be conservative with my claims here: After only a single one-hour treatment, my back felt 50 percent better. After two treatments, I was virtually pain free. No one was more astonished than I. I could actually pick up and hold my 14-month-old again.
So what about irrational, overwhelming sadness? A study at Stanford University split 61 pregnant women with depression into three groups. One group received depression-specific acupuncture for a period of eight weeks. Sixty-nine percent of this group showed improvement.4 I like those odds. I also like avoiding anti-depressant medications that pregnant women often take because they feel they don’t have any other choice. Yes, acupuncture did make me feel better emotionally, though the results were not as immediate. Cristi cautioned me that it would take several sessions. Slowly, I felt myself grow more stable.
At this point, you might wonder about acupuncture during labor. In traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture and acupressure have long been used to facilitate labor and to manage labor pain. Traditional Chinese medicine teaches that one must balance the two opposing energy entities—yin and yang—and that meridians of energy flow through our bodies. Labor pain is viewed as a result of an imbalance of this energy. Acupuncture or acupressure along the appropriate meridian(s) can restore this balance.5 In several studies, women who received acupuncture had less labor pain and spent significantly less time in labor.6-8. In one study, acupressure alone was applied to only one point, SP6, found on the inside of our lower legs. This stimulus provided similar positive results.9 The SP6 acupressure also lowered the laboring women’s anxiety level.10 Controlled trials show that women who receive acupuncture during labor also have a reduced use of epidurals.11 Acupuncture is inexpensive, simple, and does not require fetal monitoring or an anesthesiologist.
As for facilitating labor, I’ve now heard from numerous people that acupuncture can get a woman going. Several points are used for induction. Acupressure on these points is believed to release oxytocin, which stimulates contractions.12 In addition, a University of North Carolina study found that women who received acupuncture treatments to initiate labor were far less likely to deliver by C-section—always good news.13
A recent Italian study supported previous Chinese studies in asserting that acupuncture can even resolve a baby’s breech presentation. Traditionally, a combination of acupuncture and moxibustion is used. Moxibustion is the burning of an herb, artemisa vulgaris, common name mugwort, near a specific acupuncture point, in this case, on the little toe. The results were clear: traditional Chinese medicine can aptly persuade our little babies to flip around and get ready to be born headfirst.14 Cristi suggested that this technique be done at 34 to 36 weeks, when there is still enough room for baby to turn, but not so much room that he will flip back to breech. A common mistake made by both doctors and moms-to-be is waiting too long to try this simple, non-invasive, and painless technique.
I saw Cristi weekly for the rest of my pregnancy, and I will be eternally grateful for how much healthier she helped me to become. My baby boy, who was born in perfect health in January, is owes much to Cristi’s work. Acupuncture can make pregnancy even better for those who enjoy it, and tolerable for those who, like me, suffer through it. My qi is grateful.
Robin Merrill is a mother, teacher and writer living in rural Maine.
1. Caroline Smith, Caroline Crowther, and Justin Beilby. “Acupuncture To Treat Nausea and Vomiting in Early Pregnancy: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Birth: Issues in Perinatal Care 29.1 (2002): 1-9; http://libraries.maine.edu/mainedatabases/authmaine.asp?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.prxy2.ursus.maine.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=6147993&site=ehost-live.
2. Nina Kvorning, et al. “Acupuncture relieves pelvic and low-back pain in late pregnancy.” Acta Obstetricia & Gynecologica Scandinavica 83.3 (2004): 246-250; http://libraries.maine.edu/mainedatabases/authmaine.asp?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.prxy2.ursus.maine.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=12264185&site=ehost-live.
3. Kaj Wedengerg, Berit Moen, and Asa Norling. “A prospective randomized study comparing acupuncture with physiotherapy for low-back and pelvic pain in pregnancy.” Acta Obstetricia & Gynecologica Scandinavica 79.5 (May 2000): 331-335; http://libraries.maine.edu/mainedatabases/authmaine.asp?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.prxy2.ursus.maine.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=5220470&site=ehost-live>.
4. R. Manber, R. Schnyer, J. Allen, A. Rush, and C. Blasey. “Acupuncture: a promising treatment for depression during pregnancy.” Journal of Affective Disorders 83 (2004): 89-95.
5. Mi Kyeong Lee, Soon Bok Chang, and Duck-Hee Kang. “Effects of SP6 acupressure on labor pain and length of delivery time in women during labor.” Journal of Alternative And Complementary Medicine (New York, N.Y.) 10.6 (Dec. 2004): 959-965. MEDLINE. EBSCO. State of Maine, Augusta, ME. 21 Sep. 2008
6. See Note 5: 959.
7. Sedigheh Hantoushzadeh,, Navid Alhusseini, and Amir Hussein Lebaschi. “The effects of acupuncture during labour on nulliparous women: A randomised controlled trial.” Australian & New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology 47.1 (Feb. 2007): 26-30; http://libraries.maine.edu/mainedatabases/authmaine.asp?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.prxy2.ursus.maine.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=23764449&site=ehost-live.
8. Else Skilnand,, Ditlev Fossen, and Eli Heiberg. “Acupuncture in the management of pain in labor.” Acta Obstetricia Et Gynecologica Scandinavica 81.10 (Oct. 2002): 943-948; http://libraries.maine.edu/mainedatabases/authmaine.asp?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.prxy2.ursus.maine.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cmedm&AN=12366485&site=ehost-live.
9. See Note 5: 964.
10. See Note 5: 962. Skilnand,
11. Britt-Ingerd Nesheim and Ragnhild Kinge.. “Performance of acupuncture as labor analgesia in the clinical setting.” Acta Obstetricia & Gynecologica Scandinavica 85.4 (Apr. 2006): 441-443; http://libraries.maine.edu/mainedatabases/authmaine.asp?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.prxy2.ursus.maine.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=20350528&site=ehost-live.
12. See Note 5: 960.
13. Terry C. Harper, et al. “A randomized controlled trial of acupuncture for initiation of labor in nulliparous women.” Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine 19.8 (Aug. 2006): 465-470; http://libraries.maine.edu/mainedatabases/authmaine.asp?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.prxy2.ursus.maine.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=22297081&site=ehost-live.
14. I. Neri, et al. “Acupuncture plus moxibustion to resolve breech presentation:a randomized controlled study.” Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine 15.4 (Apr. 2004): 247-252. http://libraries.maine.edu/mainedatabases/authmaine.asp?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.prxy2.ursus.maine.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=13376160&site=ehost-live.