They say acupuncture provided more relief from pelvic girdle pain, a common condition in pregnancy that causes severe pain in a third of affected women and may persist after pregnancy.
But that doesn't mean that acupuncture, an ancient Chinese medical practice using needles to stimulate specific parts of the body, is always appropriate. More studies are needed before recommendations can be made for pregnant women with pelvic girdle pain, say researchers.
Safety First With Acupuncture
"Usually, we do not suggest needle treatments during the first trimester, which is 12 weeks," says Lixing Lao, PhD, L.Ac, a physiologist, licensed acupuncturist, and associate professor with the University of Maryland-Baltimore's Center for Integrative Medicine.
Lao hadn't seen the Swedish study, so he couldn't comment on its findings about pelvic girdle pain. Instead, he spoke about acupuncture and pregnancy in general terms.
After 12 weeks, acupuncture is usually safer than earlier in a pregnancy, says Lao. During the first trimester, "there is more chance for spontaneous abortion; the baby has not stabilized yet," he says, noting that acupuncture could affect contractions of the uterus.
For women at later stages of pregnancy, acupuncturists typically avoid inserting acupuncture needles deeply or using them in the lower back region, he says.
"Nobody wants to take the risk. Usually, we use more distant points, plus some acupressure or gentle massage for pain decrease," says Lao, who gave his own wife acupuncture while she delivered their two children.
Pregnant women interested in acupuncture should talk to their doctor, says Lao. If a pregnant woman decides to get acupuncture, she should find a licensed acupuncturist, he explains.
Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine that's been used for more than 2,000 years. That makes it one of the "oldest, most commonly used medical procedures in the world," says the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicines (NCCAM), a branch of the National Institutes of Health.
In acupuncture, hair-thin needles are inserted at strategic points on the body to rebalance vital energy, called qi (pronounced "chee"). Traditional Chinese medicine holds that qi flows along paths called meridians; the body has more than 2,000 acupuncture points, says the NCCAM.
Acupressure applies pressure to specific points, but does not use needles.
Many acupuncture studies have been done, and some have been more useful than others, says the NCCAM. More work is needed, but promising results have been seen in acupuncture studies of adults with pain after surgery or dental procedures, chemotherapy nausea, and vomiting, says the NCCAM.
In 1997, an NIH panel also noted that acupuncture might help relieve nausea during pregnancy. A long list of other conditions -- including addiction, menstrual cramps, and pain from knee osteoarthritis -- might also benefit from acupuncture, says the NCCAM.
Swedish Study Shows Acupuncture Helps
The pelvic girdle pain study included 386 pregnant women. All were 12-31 weeks into their pregnancy.
Every woman got standard care -- education about activity, rest, and the back and pelvis. They also got a pelvic belt for support and a home exercise program to strengthen their stomach and gluteal muscles.
Another group of women also got two acupuncture sessions per week for six weeks. The women's and babies' heart rates were monitored before and after all treatments.
A third group got standard care plus specific exercises to stabilize their back and pelvis. The women were instructed to do the exercises throughout the day at home and with a trainer for six weeks.
The acupuncture group got the most relief from pelvic girdle pain, followed by the stabilization exercise group. Those who just got standard care didn't have any improvement. The findings were based on patients' pain reports recorded every morning and evening, along with an examiner's evaluation.
No one had any serious side effects during the treatments or follow-up a week later. The study by Swedish midwife Helen Elden and colleagues appears on BMJ Online First.