While many women may want a drug-free way to ease the pain of childbirth, a new study suggests that acupuncture is not the answer.
The findings, published in the obstetrics journal BJOG, add to evidence that acupuncture is not effective for relieving labor pain.
Researchers found that among 105 first-time moms having a labor induction, those given acupuncture before their contractions started showed no benefit when it came to pain.
Two-thirds of the women ended up requesting epidural pain medication during labor. That compared with 56 percent of women who received a “sham” version of acupuncture and 77 percent of those given no acupuncture at all.
The differences among the three groups were not significant in statistical terms.
The findings follow a recent study by researchers in South Korea and the UK that analyzed 10 previous clinical trials of acupuncture for labor pain. The conclusion? There is no good evidence that the tactic works.
“I believe that the overwhelming evidence from objectively conducted randomized studies indicates that acupuncture offers little benefit,” Dr. Ian Z. MacKenzie, the lead researcher on the current study, told Reuters Health in an email.
“Randomized” refers to clinical trials where people are randomly assigned either to undergo the treatment under study or to be in a “control group” - in which they receive a comparison therapy or no therapy at all. Randomized, controlled clinical trials are considered the “gold standard” of medical research.
And while acupuncture has been used for centuries in China for labor pain relief, Western-style clinical trials have usually failed to find a benefit.
“Personally, I do not think further evidence is required,” said MacKenzie, of Oxford University in the UK.
Acupuncture has been used for more than 2,000 years in Chinese medicine to treat a wide variety of ailments. According to traditional medicine, specific acupuncture points on the skin are connected to internal pathways that conduct energy, or qi (pronounced “chee”), and stimulating these points with a fine needle promotes the healthy flow of qi.
Modern research has suggested that acupuncture may help ease pain by altering signals among nerve cells or affecting the release of various chemicals of the central nervous system. And clinical trials have supported acupuncture for easing some types of pain, like lower back pain and chronic headaches.
For the current study, MacKenzie’s team recruited 105 first-time mothers who were undergoing labor induction - the idea being to study a fairly homogenous group of women who would be undergoing (or not undergoing) acupuncture at the same stage of labor.
Overall, 52 women were randomly assigned to have acupuncture before any painful contractions started. They received either standard acupuncture or “electro-acupuncture,” which adds electrical stimulation to the needles.
The rest of the women either had no acupuncture or received sham versions of the technique - where the needles were inserted only to a very shallow depth, and not at the sites used in traditional medicine to ease labor pain.