What is acupuncture and how does it work?
Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese form of medicine based on balancing the body's 'vital energy' or 'qi' (chi). The theory is that qi travels along specific routes up and down the body and is concentrated in certain key body surface areas known as acupuncture points. Acupuncture involves stimulating the points that represent whatever internal organ, muscle etc. requires treatment, in order to rebalance the body's qi. An area to be treated may be represented in several acupuncture points. This stimulation is most commonly applied with very fine needles.
While that is the official theory behind the traditional Chinese medicine, how the treatment works has yet to be proven conclusively scientifically, although there is evidence that it does work. Most likely is that acupuncture has an effect on the central nervous system, affecting brain function to block the transmission of pain and stimulate the release endorphins, the body's natural pain killers.
When can I use acupuncture?
You can use acupuncture during both pregnancy and labour: There are no side-effects whatsoever for either mother or baby associated with the use of acupuncture. If you have specific concerns during pregnancy then a qualified acupuncturist will be able to recommend treatment - there are even acupuncture treatments to help turn a breech baby towards the end of pregnancy.
For labour itself, acupuncture can provide pain relief fairly unobtrusively. Needles are usually used on one ear and are stimulated with electrical impulses, similar to how a TENS machine works. Acupuncture may also be used to help kick-start labour if you're overdue, to speed up contractions if labour has slowed down, and simply to help you relax.
- Works externally so does not affect either the baby or the mother's chemical balance
- There is no evidence of medical risks associated with using acupuncture
- Allows you to be mobile
- Doesn't interfere with your control over labour
- You can stop whenever you feel it's not working for you
- Can be used in conjunction with other pain relief, such as gas and air
- Can be used for homebirths
- You may well need to organise advanced acupuncture privately
- You may find that the acupuncture doesn't do much for you, or that the added stimulus becomes irritating (but in that case you can simply abandon it)
- You can't use electro-stimulus with acupuncture in a birthing pool
What about the availabilty of acupuncture for labour?
For acupuncture itself a fully qualified acupuncturist is needed. In the run up to labour you can visit an acupuncturist but you will probably need to privately organise for an acupuncturist to be present at the birth if you want to use acupuncture in labour. It is possible that your hospital or birthing centre may have an acupuncture practitioner, so there's no harm in asking ahead of time.
Where can I find out more?
The British Acupuncture Council
can provide you with contact details for your local practitioners so that you can have an initial consultation. There are also good resources and a practitioner-finding tool on the British Medical Acupuncture Society website.