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While women have sought drug-free ways of avoiding pain during childbirth for thousands of years, a newly released medical study suggests that acupuncture is not an answer.

More Questions About Acupuncture for Labor Pain

The findings, published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, pile on new evidence that acupuncture, at least as it is used by Western doctors, does not stop labor pains.

In this study, the researchers found that among 105 first-time mothers having induced labor, giving acupuncture before contractions started resulted in no less pain. Two-thirds of the mothers who were given acupuncture requested a long-needle epidural pain medication.

If the women were given acupuncture at the wrong points, however, they were less likely to ask for pain medication. This sham acupuncture involved placing needles at points on the skin where the standards of acupuncture practice suggest no pain relief would result.

This study follows a meta-analysis done by researchers in the UK and South Korea that found that 10 studies failed to support the use of acupuncture during labor and delivery. Could the modern experts know more than centuries of traditional Chinese medicine?

Study Finding No Benefit of Acupuncture May Have Been Biased

    Research physicians taking a second look at the studies that find no benefit of acupuncture believe they may have been seriously biased. The South Korean and British researchers who did the meta-analysis, for example, looked at 19 analyses of medical experience. They found:

    • Nine studies that found a statistically significant benefit of acupuncture for relieving pain,
    • Three studies finding a nearly significant benefit of acupuncture (that is, there was a positive benefit, but the number of women enrolled in the study was not large enough to establish with reasonable certainty that the reduction of pain was not due to some chance factor), and

    • Only seven studies that did not come close to statistical significance.
    But even in these studies, more women enjoyed pain relief than did not. The Korean and British authors simply dismissed these findings.

    And when acupuncture studies found highly significant results, suggesting that the results were 99.999% likely not to be due to a chance factor, the reviewers simply ignored them. For instance, the authors noted that there was a 99.999% likelihood that using acupuncture reduced the use of a pain drug called meperidine. The scientists dismissed this as irrelevant, stating that the women in the studies "thought if they were getting acupuncture, they were getting something" and it would be impolite to bother the nice doctor for more.
    Also ignored in the study were findings that babies delivered while their mothers were treated with acupuncture had higher blood oxygen levels and higher Apgar scores. They were less likely to suffer injury during the passage through the birth canal. The studies showed reduced need for induced labor and lower levels of all kinds of anesthesia.

    But the study "disproving" the use acupuncture was conducted on women who had to have induced labor, suggesting they already had serious health problems, such as preeclampsia or diabetes. These were the women who were the least likely to benefit from the treatment.

    The bottom line seems to be that no woman should insist on getting acupuncture and nothing else during delivery. Drugs should be on standby. But reasonable analysis shows that acupuncture is a good place to start for pain relief.

    • Cho SH, Lee H, Ernst E. Acupuncture for pain relief in labour: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BJOG 2010, 117:907–20.
    • Photo courtesy of kurt by Flickr :