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Fertility, Pregnancy, and Postpartum Treatments in TCM

The negative symptoms of pregnancy can often turn a joyful stage of life into one that is somewhat uncomfortable, or at worst, simply miserable. As a complete system of healthcare, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) includes treatments developed over centuries to help support women through complications that may arise before, during, and after pregnancy. TCM modalities can often be effective without being invasive during these times. Furthermore, they are increasingly being studied and showing efficacy in recent scientific research. An overview of the basic TCM theories behind pregnancy provides a foundation in understanding its applications for different stages of reproductive health– from treating issues with fertility to postpartum distress.

TCM theory explains pregnancy as a “hot” (energetically demanding) condition during which increased amounts of qi and blood are required by the uterus to nurture the fetus. The body sometimes draws this vital energy from other energetic systems, which can result in imbalances leading to symptoms like digestive problems, pain, swelling, nausea and fatigue. Based on this view of pregnancy, women require extra nurturing aimed at supporting the health of the blood and directing the proper flow of qi through the body. By ensuring a healthy flow of qi and blood, acupuncture treatments during pregnancy can in turn alleviate negative symptoms.
In general, acupuncture is very safe during pregnancy though fewer needles may be used in the treatment since some points are known to induce labor. There are also points targeted specifically during pregnancy, such as zhiyin point, located on the mother’s foot and used for turning a breech baby or the zhubin point, which translates to “guest house” or “beautiful baby point” and is thought to calm the mother and nurture the baby.
Western and Eastern medicine alike acknowledge the importance of preparing the body for pregnancy. Many biomedical fertility clinics or doctors will advise cutting out alcohol and smoking, eating a balanced diet, taking prenatal vitamins, and getting gentle exercise for several months before trying to conceive. In TCM, acupuncture is used in addition to lifestyle adjustments to optimize hormone levels, reduce stress, and ripen the uterus (promote blood and qi flow to the area) in the prenatal stage.
While acupuncture treatments can be beneficial for preparing any woman for pregnancy, in the U.S. acupuncture is more often used in conjunction with other fertility treatments. For over a decade, its use as an adjunct therapy for IVF during embryo transfers has been a popular subject for research. A 2012 review article in Fertility and Sterility covered two dozen studies that investigated different types of acupuncture used during the IVF process and concluded that the clinical pregnancy rate was significantly higher for groups in which patients received acupuncture, and the live birth rate was also higher in many studies. Results from a study included in the review are summarized in Figure 1. Acupuncture has also been shown to be successful in treating male infertility (an issue which is estimated to be linked to nearly a third of infertility cases) by increasing sperm health, mobility, and count.
While acupuncture to support fertility has gained recent notice due to the rise of IVF, many people don’t realize that it is also an excellent treatment for supporting women during and after pregnancy. Acupuncture offers non-invasive solutions for complications and discomforts that arise during pregnancy, from common morning sickness to something as serious as bleeding during pregnancy. Since acupuncture treatment is drug-free, strong medications and their side effects can be avoided. Figures 2 and 3 compare the rate of success found in acupuncture studies with the success rates of standard care in turning breech babies and inducing labor
Since pregnancy and giving birth are energy-demanding processes, post-pregnancy acupuncture care is especially important for nurturing the mother back to her full vitality. The application of acupuncture after delivery covers a wide spectrum, from treating immediate symptoms like post-cesarean section pain to addressing lactation, energy level, and mood issues. Many of these topics are only beginning to be researched, but some of the preliminary studies suggest that acupuncture is a viable replacement for medications typically used to treat these conditions. A 2009 study done in China found that when women were given acupuncture for pain after their cesarean sections, they needed around 30% less opioid pain medications than the women who did not have an acupuncture treatment. While many scientific studies over the past couple decades have demonstrated that acupuncture has benefits comparable to antidepressants in treating depression, it wasn’t until 2010 that an Obstetrics and Gynecology study focused more specifically on depression related to pregnancy. They found that after 12 treatments, 63% of women responded positively to acupuncture. This is a promising figure when the response rates for TCAs or SSRIs hover around 60-70% in many trials, and worse, can have negative side effects or get into breast milk and be transferred to the child.
Unlike some biomedical treatments for the issues related to pregnancy, acupuncture gets at the root of the problem by addressing imbalances in the body. It does so in a gentle but effective manner with minimal side effects. The result is often not merely a reduction in bothersome symptoms, but a boost in vitality and the feeling of well-being. ♥