Imagine you are more than 40 weeks pregnant, and your belly is bulging, with a feisty baby inside. You are officially over the 40-week due date, but there’s no sign of your water breaking or any sign that the baby wants to come out. What do you do?
In the last days of your pregnancy, you might consider induction of labor if your healthcare practitioners think the outcome will be better if the baby is born sooner rather than later.
There are many reasons for inducing labor when you are past your due date, including increased risk of possible complications, and concerns about the health of you and your baby. Methods to induce labor involve ripening the cervix with medication or mechanical stimulation. However, medical inductions can have some undesired side effects, and many women may choose to try complementary methods to bring on labor, including exercise, sex, herbal teas, acupuncture, and acupressure.
What are acupuncture and acupressure?
Acupuncture involves the insertion of fine needles into specific points of the body, while acupressure involves using fingers to apply pressure to those spots. Both have been used to help soften and dilate the cervix during labor, and provide a way of reducing pain and avoiding induction with medical methods.
Although getting poked in various areas of your body during labor does not sound like the most comfortable approach, there is some evidence that acupuncture and acupressure can be beneficial during labor. In fact, these techniques have been used for more than 2,000 years in Asian countries to aid labor, including reducing pain, increasing contractions, and regulating breathing.
By applying physical pressure to several points that run along your body’s meridian system, known as the life-energy path, the goal is to increase blood flow to the uterus, influence hormonal responses, and stimulate uterine contractions. Acupressure and acupuncture are usually used in combination with modern medical practices in the form of massage, but is rarely used alone.
There are six major pressure points on the body that are believed to promote contractions, ease pain, and reduce obstruction when activated during labor:
- Pericardium 8 Point (PC8): located in the center of the palm.
- Spleen 6 Point (SP6): located above the ankle, on the backside of the lower calf.
- Bladder 60 Point (BL60): located on the foot, in the depression between the ankle and the Achilles tendon.
- Bladder 67 Point (BL67): located on the outside of the end of the pinky toe.
- Bladder 32 Point (BL32): located in the dimple of the buttocks.
- Large Intestine 4 Point (LI4): located on the back of the hand, deep between the skin of the thumb and index finger.
Do they work?
The effectiveness of acupressure and acupuncture at speeding up labor is controversial. However, research has shown that these ancient practices are effective for reducing the pain and anxiety of labor. Some studies have found that using acupuncture at specific points along the spine can support ripening of the cervix, and can actually shorten the time between the due date and the actual time of delivery. Another study showed that, while acupuncture may help the cervix become ready for birth, it does not lessen the need for medical induction or epidurals, nor does it shorten and induce labor. It is also believed to be unrelated to the rate of cesarean sections.
(Note: most of the research on acupuncture during pregnancy has been with healthy pregnant women, and may not apply to high-risk or atypical pregnancies. More research needs to be done to make definitive recommendations).
Instead of prescribing specific acupuncture points for all pregnant women in need of induction, experts recommend a holistic approach in line with specific traditional Chinese medicine practices.
Are acupressure or acupuncture appropriate for you?
If you are thinking about trying acupuncture to induce labor, you may want to prepare yourself for the potential side effects of acupuncture, such as fainting, decreased blood pressure, drowsiness, discomfort, and bleeding. And, while acupressure may be done by a partner or midwife, you should always be aware of the risks of activating pressure points.
Complementing modern medical methods with alternative approaches is an option for many women beyond their due date. However, before trying any method to induce labor, you should speak to your healthcare practitioner and discuss with him or her any risks or possible complications.