Acupuncture for labour pain

Abstract: Background: Acupuncture involves puncturing the skin with thin sterile needles at defined acupuncture points. Previous studies are inconclusive regarding the effect of acupuncture on labour pain, but some studies have found a reduction in the use of pharmacological pain relief when acupuncture is administered. The appropriate dose of acupuncture treatment required to elicit a potential effect on labour pain has not been fully explored. The dose is determined by many different factors, including the number of needles used and the intensity of the stimulation. In Sweden, manual stimulation of the needles is common practice when acupuncture is used for labour pain, but electrical stimulation of the needles, which gives a higher dose, could possibly be more effective. The overall aim of this thesis was to evaluate the effectiveness of acupuncture with manual stimulation (MA) of the needles as well as acupuncture with a combination of manual and electrical stimulation (EA) in reducing labour pain, compared with standard care without any form of acupuncture (SC).Methods: The study was designed as a three-armed randomised controlled trial in which 303 nulliparous women with normal pregnancies were randomised to MA, EA, or SC. The primary outcome was labour pain, assessed using the Visual Analogue Scale (VAS). Secondary outcomes were relaxation during labour, use of obstetric pain relief, and associations between maternal characteristics and labour pain and use of epidural analgesia respectively. Also, labour and infant outcomes, recollection of labour pain, and maternal experiences, such as birth experience and experience of the midwife, were investigated two months after the birth. The sample size calculation was based on the potential to discover a difference of 15 mm on the VAS. Data were collected during labour before the interventions, the day after birth, and two months later. Besides using the VAS, information was collected by means of study specific protocol, questionnaires and medical records.Results: The mean VAS scores were 66.4 in the MA group, 68.5 in the EA group, and 69.0 in the SC group (mean differences: MA vs. SC 2.6 95% CI -1.7 to 6.9, and EA vs. SC 0.6 95% CI -3.6 to 4.8). Other methods of pain relief were used less frequently in the EA group, including epidural analgesia, MA 61.4%, EA 46%, and SC 69.9%. (EA vs. SC OR 0.4 95% CI 0.2 to 0.7). No statistically significant differences were found in the recollection of labour pain between the three groups two months after birth (mean VAS score: MA 69.3, EA 68.7 and SC 70.1). A few maternal characteristics were associated with labour pain (age, dysmenorrhea, and cervix dilatation), but none of the investigated characteristics predicted the outcome of the acupuncture treatment in MA or EA. Women in the EA group experienced acupuncture as being effective for labour pain to a higher extent than women who received MA, MA 44.4%, EA 67.1% (EA vs. MA OR 2.4 95% CI 1.2 to 4.8). Women in the EA group also spent less time in labour (mean 500 min) than those who received MA (mean 619 min) and SC (mean 615 min) (EA vs. MA HR 1.4 95% CI 1.0 to1.9, EA vs. SC HR 1.4, 95% CI 1.1 to 2.0), and had less blood loss than women receiving SC, (EA vs. SC OR 0.1 95% CI 0.3 to 0.7). The women’s assessment of the midwife as being supportive during labour (MA 77.2%, EA 83.5%, SC 80%), overall satisfaction with midwife care (MA 100%, EA 97.5%, SC 98.7%), and having an overall positive childbirth experience (MA 64.6%, EA 61.0%, SC 54.3%) did not differ statistically. No serious side effects of the acupuncture treatment were reported.Conclusion: Acupuncture, regardless of type of stimulation, did not differ from standard care without acupuncture in terms of reducing women’s experience of pain during labour, or their memory of pain and childbirth overall two months after the birth. However, other forms of obstetric pain relief were less frequent in women receiving a combination of manual and electrical stimulation, suggesting that this method could facilitate coping with labour pain.