Is Acupuncture Safe During Pregnancy

Is Acupuncture Safe During Pregnancy?​

Key message:

Acupuncture is safe in pregnancy when administered by a qualified acupuncturist. Research shows low rates of side effects & reduced miscarriage rates.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Congratulations on your pregnancy! It’s an exciting time, but it can also come with discomforts like nausea, back pain, and fatigue. You might be wondering if acupuncture can help alleviate these symptoms and keep you feeling your best.

Acupuncture has been used for centuries to treat various health concerns, and in recent years, its use during pregnancy has grown in popularity. But is it safe? In this article, we will review the latest research to explore the safety and potential benefits of acupuncture throughout your pregnancy journey. We will also discuss some factors to consider before scheduling an appointment so you can make an informed decision about your and your baby’s wellbeing.

What Is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture involves the insertion of very fine needles into specific points on the body. While it has roots in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), its rise within complementary and integrative health (CIH) highlights its growing scientific validation.

Decades of research, including tens of thousands of high-quality studies, support acupuncture’s effectiveness for many conditions. This makes it a viable option for pregnant women looking for alternative medicine approaches alongside conventional healthcare.

Conditions Pregnancy Acupuncture Treatment Can Help

Acupuncture treatments during pregnancy can offer a drug-free approach to managing a variety of discomforts. Here is a quick rundown of common pregnancy symptoms and conditions where acupuncture might be helpful:

  • Back Pain: Back pain, particularly in the lower back, is a frequent complaint during pregnancy. Acupuncture can be used in pain management to effectively target these areas, promoting pain relief.

  • Nausea and Vomiting: Many pregnant women experience morning sickness, especially in the first trimester. Research shows that acupuncture and acupressure can be successfully used to ease morning sickness and reduce the severity of severe nausea.

  • Pelvic Pain: The growing baby puts pressure on the pelvic floor, leading to discomfort. Acupuncture treatments can help alleviate pelvic pain and improve overall pelvic floor health.

  • Fatigue: Feeling tired is a common pregnancy symptom. Acupuncture can help boost energy levels and promote better sleep.

  • Headaches: Tension headaches are a frequent pregnancy woe. Acupuncture can provide relief from headaches and migraines.

  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: This condition causes pain and numbness in the hands and wrists. Acupuncture treatments can offer effective relief from carpal tunnel syndrome.

  • Stress and Anxiety: Pregnancy can be a stressful time. Acupuncture’s calming effect can help manage stress and anxiety, promoting emotional wellbeing.

Conditions Pregnancy Acupuncture Can help

The Science Behind Acupuncture and Pregnancy

While acupuncture’s roots lie in ancient practices, modern research is shedding light on the science behind its potential benefits during pregnancy. Here’s how scientists believe acupuncture works to alleviate pregnancy discomforts:

  • Endorphin Release: Acupuncture stimulates the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. This can help manage pain conditions like backache and pelvic discomfort.

  • Nervous System Modulation: Acupuncture influences the nervous system, reducing stress responses and promoting relaxation. This is important for managing stress and anxiety and even improving sleep quality during pregnancy.

  • Increased Blood Flow: Acupuncture may increase blood flow to specific areas, like the uterus and ovaries. Improved circulation can potentially aid in reducing inflammation and promoting overall well-being.

  • Hormone Regulation: Some studies suggest acupuncture might influence the production of hormones involved in pregnancy, potentially impacting morning sickness symptoms or mood regulation.

Important to Remember: The research on acupuncture during pregnancy is ongoing. While results are promising, more studies are needed to fully understand the mechanisms involved and how acupuncture influences different aspects of pregnancy.

Is Acupuncture Safe During Pregnancy?

A comprehensive systematic review (Park et al. 2014) examined data from 105 different research projects. The researchers specifically focused on identifying and analysing adverse events (AEs) associated with acupuncture treatment in pregnant women.

Here’s what they found:

  • Low Incidence of Adverse Events: Out of thousands of acupuncture sessions analysed, the the reate of adverse events linked to acupuncture was only 1.3%.

  • Mostly Mild Effects: Most reported adverse events were mild or moderate, like pain at the needle site or minor bleeding. Severe AEs were very rare and generally not directly linked to acupuncture.

Key Takeaway: This comprehensive review indicates that acupuncture, done by a qualified practitioner, is generally safe during pregnancy. The majority of side effects are mild and short-lived.

Acupuncture Safety in Pregnancy Back Pain Patients

Two recent meta-analysis studies assessed the effectiveness and safety of acupuncture in pregnant women treated for back pain.

  • Yang et al. (2022) In their analysis of 10 randomized controlled trials involving over 1,000 pregnant women, the authors found no significant increase in adverse events due to acupuncture. Key pregnancy outcomes, such as Apgar scores and gestational age at birth, were not adversely affected. The study concluded that acupuncture is both effective and safe for managing low back pain during pregnancy.

  • Li et al. (2023) Similarly, this meta-analysis of 12 trials with over 1,300 participants reported no serious adverse events associated with acupuncture. The preterm delivery rate was lower among women receiving acupuncture compared to those receiving other treatments. Furthermore, mild adverse effects such as bruising or drowsiness were rare and transient.

Both studies suggest that acupuncture is a safe treatment option for pregnant women seeking relief from low back pain. With minimal risk and a strong safety record, acupuncture offers an alternative therapy that prioritizes the well-being of both mother and baby.

Acupuncture Safety in Women Receiving Acupuncture for Birth Preparation and During Labour

A study by Lokugamage et al. (2020) explored the impact of acupuncture on women preparing for labour and birth. The research, based on data from an NHS maternity acupuncture service, compared outcomes between women who received birth preparation acupuncture and those who did not.

Key Findings:

  • Reduced Surgical Births: Women who received acupuncture had fewer surgical births (such as C-sections) and were more likely to have normal vaginal deliveries.

  • Lower Pain Relief Requirements: They required less intrapartum analgesia and progressed to higher levels of pain relief at a slower rate.

  • Fewer Inductions: They also needed fewer components of the induction of the labour process.

  • Shorter Hospital Stay: The length of hospital stay was reduced among women who received acupuncture.

  • Positive Patient Experience: Patient feedback highlighted that acupuncture enhanced their pregnancy experience, positively affecting their choice of healthcare provider.

The study concluded that acupuncture for birth preparation and labour is safe and may lead to improved physiological birth outcomes, supporting its use as a complementary therapy for labour support.

Busting Myths: Acupuncture and Miscarriage Risk

The concern about acupuncture potentially increasing miscarriage risk is understandable. However, reassuringly, research suggests the opposite might be true when acupuncture is performed by a fully qualified practitioner.

  • Comprehensive Review: A large-scale systematic review (Park et al., 2014) looked at data from 25 studies, including thousands of acupuncture sessions for pregnant women. The review found that miscarriage rates among women receiving acupuncture were actually lower than the average miscarriage risk in the general population.

  • Reduced Rates: Interestingly, only 5% of women treated with acupuncture for nausea and vomiting experienced a miscarriage. This is significantly lower than the estimated 11% miscarriage rate in the whole population.

Important Note: As with any medical procedure, choosing a fully qualified acupuncturist is crucial. Their expert knowledge and training ensure a safe approach, minimising potential risks.

Click to find out about our acupuncture for miscarriage recovery service.

How Safe Are Acupuncture Needles?

It is normal to have questions about the safety of the needles used in acupuncture, especially during pregnancy, when the immune system is weaker. Here is what you need to know:

  • Sterility: Registered acupuncturists are required to follow and comply with very strict safety codes and are allowed to use only single-use, sterile, disposable needles marked and manufactured by reputable and recognised manufacturers. At our clinic, we use only high-quality brands of acupuncture needles. Each needle is brand new and comes in a pre-sterilised package. Each package is opened in front of a patient, and the needle is thrown away immediately after a single use. This practice almost completely eliminates the risk of infection.

  • Needle Material: Acupuncture needles are made from thin, surgical-grade stainless steel. They are solid, unlike the hollow needles used for injections, making them very unlikely to break during treatment.

  • Practitioner Training: Degree-qualified acupuncturists receive extensive training in safe needling techniques. This training ensures they understand proper needle insertion techniques, including needle depth, angle, and targeting specific acupoints. This meticulous approach helps minimize discomfort and the risk of any complications.

Acupuncture is Recommended by Major Health Organisations

The World Health Organization (WHO) recognises acupuncture as a safe and effective treatment in pregnancy, specifically recommending it for nausea, vomiting, and low back/pelvic pain. In their 2016 guidelines, “Recommendations on Antenatal Care for a Positive Pregnancy Experience“, WHO advocate for person-centred healthcare with at least eight antenatal visits. Acupuncture, along with other complementary therapies, is highlighted as a valuable intervention to relieve common pregnancy discomforts, providing a non-pharmacological approach supported by a leading global health organisation.

In their 2021 Antenatal Care Guidelines, The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) recommend acupressure as an adjunct treatment for women with moderate-to-severe nausea and vomiting.

Is every acupuncturist qualified to treat pregnant women?

Understanding Acupuncture Qualifications

Acupuncturists’ training can vary greatly:

  • Minimal Training (Just a Few Hours): Be aware that some individuals may offer acupuncture services with very little training. This lack of knowledge can pose risks to your safety and the treatment’s effectiveness, especially during pregnancy.

  • Short Courses (A Few Days): Healthcare professionals like physiotherapists, nurses, or osteopaths may complete short acupuncture or “dry needling” courses. These can be sufficient to treat simple muscle strains, but they might not provide the in-depth knowledge necessary to treat the complexities of pregnancy.

  • Degree-Level Qualification (3-4 Years): Look for a fully qualified acupuncturist who has completed a comprehensive degree-level training program, typically spanning 3-4 years of full-time study and hundreds of hours of supervised clinical practice. This ensures thorough training in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Western Medicine, anatomy and physiology, and extensive clinical practice.

World Health Organization Guidelines for Acupuncture Training

The World Health Organization recognises the importance of safe and effective acupuncture practice and has established comprehensive guidelines outlining the minimum training requirements for acupuncture practitioners:

  • Individuals without prior medical qualifications: Individuals wishing to practise acupuncture must complete:

    • 1,168 – 1,968 hours of theoretical training (equivalent to approximately 16 – 27 months of full-time study, assuming a 40-hour work week)

    • 400 – 500 hours of supervised clinical practice in acupuncture (roughly 5 – 6.5 months of full-time clinical training)

  • Individuals with prior medical qualifications: Doctors and other medical professionals seeking to add acupuncture to their practice must complete:

    • 672 – 1,296 hours of theoretical acupuncture training (approximately 9 – 18 months of full-time study)

    • 400 – 500 hours of supervised clinical practice in acupuncture (roughly 5 – 6.5 months of full-time clinical training)

These rigorous training requirements ensure that practitioners are well-prepared to provide acupuncture safely and effectively.

Obstetric Acupuncture Specialism

Even among fully qualified acupuncturists, finding a practitioner specialising in pregnancy care is crucial. Here’s why:

  • Specialised Knowledge: Treating pregnant patients requires understanding the unique changes happening in your body, potential risks, and specific acupuncture points to avoid during certain stages.

  • Safety First: Experienced pregnancy acupuncturists make your and your baby’s safety their top priority, adapting the treatment accordingly.

  • Collaborative Care: Specialists in pregnancy care often work closely with midwives, obstetricians, and other healthcare providers, ensuring you receive well-rounded support.

How to Find a Qualified and Experienced Pregnancy Acupuncturist

Finding the right acupuncturist for your pregnancy care is essential. If you’re in London, visit our dedicated London pregnancy acupuncture page to learn more about our experienced acupuncture team and our specialist obstetric acupuncture services.

If you are not local, here is a guide to help find the best acupuncturist near you:

  • Look for the Credentials: Ensure your acupuncturist holds a 3-4 year degree-level qualification in acupuncture. In the UK, degree-qualified acupuncturists are usually registered with one or both of the following acupuncture regulation bodies, indicating they adhere to strict standards of training, practice, and ethics:

  • Ask About Pregnancy Experience: Ask questions about your potential acupuncturist’s experience in treating pregnant women. Don’t hesitate to ask how many pregnant patients they see regularly and if they’ve treated conditions similar to yours. An experienced acupuncturist with additional obstetric acupuncture training will welcome and gladly answer these questions.

  • Consider Recommendations and Resources: Ask your midwife, obstetrician, or other healthcare providers for recommendations.

  • Schedule a Consultation: Many acupuncturists offer brief phone or in-person consultations. This is a great way to discuss your needs, ask questions about their approach, and assess whether you feel comfortable with the practitioner. If you would like to ask us any questions about our pregnancy services, please reach out, and we will arrange for a complimentary mini-consultation.

Important Questions to Ask Your Pregnancy Acupuncturist

  • What is your training and qualification in acupuncture?

  • How many hours of training did you complete?

  • How many hours of supervised clinical practice did you have to do to gain your qualification?

  • Which professional acupuncture body are you registered with?

  • Does your professional indemnity insurance cover you to treat pregnant patients?

  • What additional pregnancy-related training have you completed?

  • How much experience do you have in treating pregnancy conditions?

  • Can you explain your approach to treating [your specific concern]?

Trust Your Instincts: Choosing an acupuncturist is a personal decision. Pay attention to how the practitioner makes you feel. Look for someone knowledgeable who listens carefully and makes you feel safe and supported throughout your pregnancy.

What are the 'Forbidden' Acupuncture Points in Pregnancy?

The term forbidden acupuncture points refers to certain acupuncture points that some practitioners traditionally avoid during pregnancy due to concerns about potentially inducing labour or causing uterine contractions.

While modern clinical research may not fully support this traditional view, at our clinic, we prioritise your safety. We avoid using these points in pregnant patients unless there is a compelling clinical reason. In such cases, we will discuss the potential benefits and risks in detail and seek your written consent.

We might consider using these points in patients with a history of recurrent miscarriage where other treatments have failed and where evidence suggests improved blood circulation might support a healthy pregnancy.

Here are some commonly cited “forbidden acupuncture points”:

  • LI4 (Hegu): Located between the thumb and index finger, this point is believed to stimulate uterine contractions. In early pregnancy, it’s best avoided, but it’s one of the main points used to induce labour and for labour pain management.

  • SP6 (Sanyinjiao): Found on the inner side of the leg above the ankle, it is traditionally used for labour induction, but it’s also a powerful point often used in fertility acupuncture patients.

  • BL60 (Kunlun): Positioned behind the ankle, it is thought to encourage uterine activity.

  • GB21 (Jianjing): Found on the shoulder, this point is traditionally avoided due to its potential to stimulate labour. However, it’s an amazing point to increase breastfeeding mothers’ milk supply.

Ready to Experience the Benefits of Acupuncture in Your Pregnancy?

If you’re in London, we invite you to discover how our team of experienced acupuncturists can support your journey. Visit our dedicated London Pregnancy Acupuncture page to learn more and book your consultation.

If you’re not local, we hope this article has given you confidence in trying acupuncture and the tools to find a qualified pregnancy acupuncturist near you.

Key Takeaway Points

  • Acupuncture offers a safe and effective approach to managing pregnancy-related conditions when performed by a qualified acupuncturist.
  • Supported by a growing body of research, acupuncture can significantly alleviate common discomforts like back pain, nausea, and fatigue while promoting overall well-being.
  • By choosing a practitioner with specialised training in obstetric acupuncture, you can ensure a safe and personalised experience that prioritises positive outcomes for you and your baby.
  • Acupuncture provides a natural and holistic approach to support your pregnancy journey, offering relief that integrates seamlessly with your existing prenatal healthcare plan.

References and Further Reading

Li, R. et al. (2023) ‘Efficacy and safety of acupuncture for pregnancy-related low back pain: A systematic review and meta-analysis’, Heliyon, 9(8), p. e18439. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2023.e18439.

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) (2021) Antenatal care. NICE Guideline. NICE. Available at: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng201 (Accessed: 8 May 2024).

Park, J., Sohn, Y., White, A.R., Lee, H., 2014. The Safety of Acupuncture during Pregnancy: A Systematic Review. Acupunct Med 32, 257–266. https://doi.org/10.1136/acupmed-2013-010480.

World Health Organization (WHO) (2020) WHO Benchmarks For The Training of Acupuncture. Geneva. Available at: https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240017962.

World Health Organization (WHO) (2018) WHO Recommendations on Antenatal Care for a Positive Pregnancy Experience: Summary. Geneva, Switzerland, pp. 1–10. Available at: https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789241549912.

Yang, J. et al. (2022) ‘Acupuncture for low back and/or pelvic pain during pregnancy: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials’, BMJ Open, 12(12), p. e056878. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2021-056878.

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