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Jenny Layton

Research: acupuncture and threatened miscarriage

Threatened miscarriage refers to when a pregnancy has been deemed ‘viable’, that is, when a heartbeat is present, and bleeding occurs. This intensely scary scenario has no recommended medical treatment options, only to ‘wait and see what happens’, and ‘try not to worry’(!), which is of course impossible.

We know that 50-70% of miscarriages are due to chromosomal issues incompatible with life according to Mother Nature, and we don’t want to override that. However, where there is no known cause, maybe some could potentially be helped. For women who have gone through recurrent miscarriages, supportive care (comprising ongoing emotional and educational, as well as medical support) has been shown to improve the chances of having a healthy baby. Maybe aspects of supportive care, which is a part of holistic Chinese medicine care, can help those with threatened miscarriage.

Acupuncture treatment is aimed at strengthening and nourishing our natural fertile power. Regulating blood flow is something that we routinely treat. While Chinese medicine texts have described treating bleeding in pregnancy since Sun Simiao in around 682CE, no large studies have been done assessing if acupuncture is feasible or effective for threatened miscarriage.

Debra Betts, in conjunction with a maternity hospital in New Zealand, has been treating pregnant women for over 20 years, and knew that acupuncture seemed to be helpful in this scenario. She conducted a study in 40 women who presented with a viable pregnancy and vaginal bleeding. The women all received medical self-care advice, and were randomly allocated to receive either acupuncture, or light touch at non-acupoints, twice a week initially, then weekly until 12 weeks gestation.

Outcomes were assessed on the severity of the symptoms that were of most concern to the women, such as anxiety about the bleeding, frustration and depression, cramping or back pain.

Most of the women went on to have healthy babies (3 pregnancy losses in the acupuncture group, and 5 in the touch group). For women receiving acupuncture, there was a significant reduction in the threatened miscarriage symptoms of concern to them, eg bleeding, cramping or pain (P=0.04), compared to the touch group.

Several women reported that cramps and bleeding, that had been going on for weeks, stopped soon after the first acupuncture treatment, sometimes to their surprise: ‘The next day the bleeding stopped… yeah, I was shocked and I was really happy. I was a little bit sceptical, and I kind of was thinking, oh this acupuncture stuff, is it all in people’s heads kind of thing, but no. I know now that it works’ (Kelly).

Many participants felt the benefit of regular supportive care in reducing anxiety, and being able to participate in self-care in a positive way. As one said: ‘The doctor’s like, well, there’s nothing you can do. There’s no information given to me. I think I would be more proactive if someone said that to me now, I’d be like, well that’s actually not true’ (Lucy).

Women also reported the benefit of being able to freely express their anxiety, fears, guilt or other negative thoughts in an understanding environment, rather than putting extra pressure on partners and families. Given the findings of relief from some of the most distressing physical and emotional symptoms relating to threatened miscarriage, acupuncture definitely has a helpful role to play.

Betts D, Smith CA, Dahlen HG. Does acupuncture have a role in the treatment of threatened miscarriage? Findings from a feasibility randomised trial and semi-structured participant interviews. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth. 2016 Oct 7;16(1):298.

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