As a Naturopathic Doctor who focuses on women’s health and hormonal issues I use acupuncture regularly in my practice. One of the main reasons that acupuncture is my go-to is because I work with a lot of women who are trying to conceive, are pregnant or looking for support post partum. I find acupuncture to be a safe and effective therapy to use during pregnancy. In this blog I’ll talk you through the evidence for using acupuncture and acupressure for pain relief during labor.

How Does Acupuncture Work to Reduce Pain?

While acupuncture has been used for thousands of years we actually don’t fully understand the science behind HOW it works. We have two ideas. It might work by changing how you perceive pain. Most acupuncture points are near the pathways of the nervous system, so it may be that they’re stimulating the nervous system. Another theory is that when the acupuncture needle is inserted, our bodies release more endorphins. These are our natural pain relieving hormones.

Let’s See the Research!

As an evidence based natural health practitioner I always want to see good quality research or clinical trials behind natural treatment recommendations. So, let’s talk about where this research is coming from and what results came out of these studies.

Most of the evidence comes from a Cochrane Review and Meta-Analysis done in 2011 which included 13 randomized, controlled trials with a total of 2,000 participants. 9 trials looked at acupuncture and 4 looked at acupressure. Since this super comprehensive Cochrane Review and Meta-Analysis we have 3 newer randomized controlled trials to talk about as well.

Acupuncture During Labor Trial Results:

  • Less Intense Pain

  • Shorter Labor

  • Less use of Pain Medication

  • Less use of Forceps or Vacuum

  • Less Likely to Use an Epidural

In one study women in the acupuncture group were compared with women receiving no treatment and found the acu group experienced less intense pain during labor.

In another study, women who received acupuncture compared to no treatment had shorter labor. Yes, please.

In another study, the acupuncture group had higher levels of satisfaction with pain relief compared to placebo.

When acupuncture was compared to placebo or standard care, they found that people assigned to have acupuncture used less pain medication during labor.

Three studies that compared acupuncture to standard care found less use of forceps or vacuum with acupuncture.

After the large Cochrane Review three recent randomized, controlled trials on acupuncture showed participants in the acupuncture group were significantly less likely to use an epidural.

In another of the recent randomized controlled trial (RCTs), mothers were assigned to either receive regular acupuncture AND electro-acupuncture (hooked up to a small electrical current, it’s not as scary as it sounds), just acupuncture, or standard care. Everyone was free to use any extra pain relief medications as often as they wanted. They found that the people in the combined acu and electro-acu groups were significantly less likely to use an epidural than the people who were in the standard care group.

Pretty great results using acupuncture! Now let’s look at using acupressure. This is something you can apply yourself or your partner can assist with without having a practitioner near by. Just ask your naturopath to walk you through it before hand.

Acupressure During Labor Results:

  • Less Intense Pain

  • Shorter Labor

  • Less Anxiety

  • Less Likely to Use an Epidural

Acupressure had a lot of great results similar to acupuncture. We saw that those in the acupressure group had less intense pain, shorter labors and less anxiety compared to people who received fake or sham acupressure. Fake or sham acupressure is when the traditional acupuncture points are not used, but a gentle pressure is applied anywhere on the body usually at random. This is a way of testing if the traditional acupuncture points are having an effect versus the manual pressure being applied.

Since the Cochrane Review we have a few new randomized, controlled trials on using acupressure for pain relief during labor. All of these studies found that people randomly assigned to receive acupressure during labor experienced lower pain scores. The studies that looked at the length of labor also found shorter labors. Yay.

Some of the common acupressure points that were used in these studies include LI4, which is on the back of the hand (it has a bit of an achey feeling when you apply pressure here), and SP6, which is on the legs above the ankle. Acupressure was typically provided during a contraction. These points should not be used during pregnancy or prior to labor at term because they may bring on contractions.

Overall, the Cochrane authors concluded that “Acupuncture and acupressure may have a role with reducing pain, increasing satisfaction with pain management and reduced use of pharmacological management.”

Smith et al. (2011) Cochrane Review and Meta-Analysis

We see from these trials that there are several potential benefits including higher maternal satisfaction and less use of pain medication with acupuncture, and lower pain intensity and less anxiety with acupressure. Both acupuncture and acupressure were shown to be helpful for decreasing the length of labor.

One thing to note is that acupuncture is not as effective for pain relief as an epidural. In one study, about half of the people assigned to acupuncture still asked for an epidural. However half of this group were satisfied and that’s exciting news for people who want to avoid pain medications or who are unable to receive pain medications during labor.

If you would like to learn more about using acupuncture or using acupressure during labor book an appointment with your naturopathic doctor to see if this is right for you. Most people choose to use acupressure (which just consists of applying some gentle pressure usually around the hands or feet depending on the points being used) so they can apply it themselves or have their partner apply the acupressure during labor. As always, get in touch if you have any questions and don’t forget to bring in your cute baby pics to your next appointment.