Acupuncture may relieve pelvic pain in pregnancy

Traditional acupuncture and non-penetrating sham acupuncture both appear to help relieve pelvic pain in pregnant women, Swedish researchers report. However, contrary to expectation, neither acupuncture approaches is more effective than the other.

It’s estimated that 30 percent of pregnant women suffer from pelvic pain while pregnant. Pelvic pain is one of the leading causes of disability and the need for sick leave during pregnancy.

To determine whether acupuncture might be of benefit, Dr. Helen Elden of Sahlgrenska Academy, Gothenburg and colleagues randomly assigned 115 pregnant women with pelvic pain to acupuncture plus standard treatment, including advice and exercise routines, or to the same standard treatment along with sham acupuncture with blunted needles for a total of 8 weeks.

“Both the genuine and the sham needles are delivered through a handle, but the sham needle does not penetrate the skin; instead, it collapses into the handle and creates the illusion of insertion,” the researchers explain.

After treatment, pelvic pain scores fell markedly and similarly in both groups, the researchers report.

“A needle touching the skin,” Elden told Reuters Health, “can be considered a form of sensory stimulation” that activates nerve fibers. Therefore, it is likely that the non-penetrating acupuncture needles, which were meant to be inert, in fact activated nerve fibers and consequently elicited physiological responses, Elden explained.

“That,” she added, “can explain why non-penetrating acupuncture needles were as effective as acupuncture in reducing pain.”

Although health-related quality of life showed similar improvements in both groups, as did recovery and the degree of discomfort from pelvic pain, more of the participants in the acupuncture group did manage to continue with their regular work. Also, the ability to perform daily activities, as gauged by the disability rating index, showed significant improvement in the acupuncture group.

Given this improvement, the researchers conclude that “needle penetration contributes to a limited extent to the previously reported beneficial effects of acupuncture.”

SOURCE: BJOG (British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology) International, December 2008.

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