At times, pregnancy can have you feeling like you’re all over the place. And is it any wonder? Along with joy and excitement, you may also be experiencing aches, pains, or other discomforts.

To find relief, some people turn to alternative medicine to ease morning sickness, back pain, and various other concerns without the use of medications.

Acupuncture is a traditional therapy that has been used in Asian cultures and medicine systems for thousands of years. It has also gained popularity as a complementary therapy in the United States and beyond.

Here’s what you need to know about acupuncture as well as the benefits, risks, and research behind its use during pregnancy.

Acupuncture involves inserting tiny metal needles into the skin at specific points on your body. While stimulating these points, a practitioner attempts to balance the yin (cold, slow) and yang (hot, excited) forces in the body to allow a flow of qi (life force).

If you’re new to this type of healing modality, it may sound a little out there. Thing is, there’s research supporting the use of acupuncture for a variety of conditions, including chronic pain and headaches.

You may have heard of using acupuncture while you’re trying to conceive, particularly as part of intrauterine insemination or in-vitro fertilization. Beyond this application, much of the research for acupuncture during pregnancy revolves around its ability to ease morning sickness, according to a 2015 article.

Other potential uses during pregnancy include treating:

It may also be used to induce labor.

What exactly can acupuncture do to help you through the next 9 months? Well, there’s a growing body of research to show that the answer to this question is potentially — a lot.

Conception

Even before you get that positive sign on a pregnancy test, you may consider trying acupuncture to help you conceive.

One 2016 study compared women who received acupuncture during their conception journeys with those who tried other lifestyle modifications. The results were somewhat dramatic in that the acupuncture group generally conceived in half the time of the lifestyle change group.

Researchers say that the women who received acupuncture may have had better fertility awareness and a higher overall sense of well-being. They also noted at the time that this was only the beginning of research on the topic.

Since then, other studies (in 2017 and 2020, for example) have found acupuncture effective in reducing infertility and increasing the chances of getting pregnant.

Morning sickness

There are various studies on acupuncture and its ability to help with nausea and vomiting, both inside and outside of pregnancy.

One older but large review examined studies on the stimulation of the P6 acupressure point, which is also referred to as the spleen channel. Point practitioners believe P6 influences the digestive system.

Participants in studies outside pregnancy had more relief from acupuncture for nausea and vomiting than they did taking standard medications.

And even more relevant and exciting: A review from 2021 looked at 16 previous studies and concluded that acupuncture is effective for severe nausea in pregnancy.

Aches and pains

The hormone relaxin loosens joints during pregnancy. Combine that with added weight as your body grows, and you may be dealing with nagging pelvic or back pain in the second and third trimesters.

Acupuncture has been found effective (and safe) for lower back pain by both a 2021 study and a 2018 study. Other aches and pains — and even emotional discomfort — can also be eased with acupuncture.

Depression

Antepartum depression may affect up to 15 percent of pregnancies. In a small 2010 study, researchers offered either acupuncture or massage to help with depressive symptoms.

The acupuncture group had a reduction in their overall symptoms comparable to women who receive more traditional depression treatments. And the treatment duration was pretty short, lasting just 8 weeks and 12 sessions overall.

A 2020 study also suggested that acupuncture is an acceptable treatment for reducing and preventing depression in pregnant women.

Breech babies

Acupuncture may also be a good go-to method to try when a baby is breech.

Researchers explain that stimulating acupuncture points BL67 and SI1 between 32 and 35 weeks may help turn babies so they present headfirst. In this case, treatments were given for a duration of 30 minutes for 3 days in a single week, and they were combined with another traditional Chinese medicine technique called moxibustion.

Labor pain

A 2009 study involving more than 600 pregnant women compared those who used acupuncture in labor to those who used other methods, like transcutaneous electric nerve stimulation and traditional pain medications.

The results? Those in the acupuncture group had a lower chance of using other pain-relieving measures (like epidural, for example) during labor, and the acupuncture did not have an impact on the overall length of labor.

Not only that, but the Apgar scores for babies in the acupuncture group were also the highest.

These results have been confirmed by more recent research. One 2020 review looked at 28 newer studies and found that acupuncture can help with labor pain management — and reduce the need for epidural or other medications.

More and more research is being done on acupuncture and its use during pregnancy.

Current information suggests that acupuncture is relatively safe for most pregnancies and that severe reactions or complications are rare. You may experience mild complications (pain or swelling at the needle insertion point, for example) that aren’t long-lasting.

There’s some discussion over certain acupuncture points to avoid during pregnancy because they may lead to bad outcomes. But the information available shows that the incidence of issues like miscarriage, preterm labor, and premature rupture of membranes is basically on par with groups that didn’t receive acupuncture.

Does trimester matter? Not necessarily. Practitioners treat people before pregnancy, during all three trimesters, and postpartum.

You should always speak with your doctor to see if there are any reasons why you shouldn’t seek acupuncture. Otherwise, treatment at a state licensed acupuncturist should be OK, no matter how close or far away you are to your due date.

Check the list of licensed medical professionals with your state’s board of health to be sure your acupuncturist is licensed and trained.

Points that acupuncturists avoid on the body are also referred to as the forbidden points.

There is no official consensus on exactly which points and how many points are truly forbidden, but the ones practitioners have commonly agreed upon (before week 37 in pregnancy) include:

  • SP6 (spleen channel)
  • LI4 (large intestine channel)
  • BL60 (bladder channel)
  • BL67 (bladder channel)
  • GB21 (gall bladder channel)
  • LU7 (lung channel)
  • CV3-CV7 (lower abdomen)
  • BL27-BL34 (sacral region)

Interestingly, research hasn’t found a strong link between stimulating the forbidden parts and resulting harm to pregnant women or baby.

That said, acupuncture is capable of stimulating uterine contractions and even cervical change, so speak with your OB if you have concerns about preterm labor or other factors of your pregnancy.

Most risks are minor and may include:

  • pain, redness, or bleeding at insertion points
  • infection at insertion points
  • headache
  • fatigue or trouble sleeping
  • dizziness or faintness
  • irritability
  • nausea
  • sweating or feeling hot

In one 2014 study, women reported 322 mild side effects — 302 of which involved the birthing parent rather than the baby. The other 20 were considered “adverse fetal outcomes” and included babies being small for their gestational date and twisting of the umbilical cord around the neck or shoulder.

It’s difficult to attribute these outcomes solely to acupuncture, though, and more research is needed in this area.

Speak with your doctor if you’re interested in trying acupuncture to help with pregnancy concerns or for your overall well-being.

Your doctor may be able to refer you to acupuncturists in the area who specialize in pregnancy (conception through postpartum).

While the risks appear to be minor, more study is needed on acupuncture during pregnancy to really understand its safety and benefits.