NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Acupuncture is promoted as alternative way to induce labor in women who go past their due date, but a new study finds no evidence that the tactic works.
About 5 percent to 10 percent of pregnant women go 2 weeks or more past their due date, a delay that raises the risk of complications during labor. Because of this, doctors routinely induce labor when a pregnancy lasts beyond 41 weeks.
During standard labor induction, the doctor uses an instrument to rupture the amniotic sac or gives synthetic forms of prostaglandins or oxytocin -- hormones that normally help trigger labor.
Acupuncture has been promoted as an alternative; in theory, it may work by stimulating the nervous system, which in turn could cause the uterus to contract.
But in the new study of 364 pregnant women who were past their due dates, Australian researchers found that 2 days of acupuncture therapy did not reduce the need for standard forms of labor induction.
Dr. Caroline A. Smith and colleagues at the University of Adelaide report the findings in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology.
Acupuncture has been used for more than 2,000 years in Chinese medicine to treat a wide variety of ailments. According to traditional medicine, specific acupuncture points on the skin are connected to internal pathways that conduct energy, or qi ("chee"), and stimulating these points with a fine needle promotes the healthy flow of qi.
For their study, Smith and her colleagues randomly assigned patients to either undergo real acupuncture or a "sham" version where needles were inserted only superficially, into areas of the skin other than traditional acupuncture points.
Each woman had two sessions performed over the 2 days before her scheduled labor induction.
In the end, Smith's team found, women who had the real acupuncture were just as likely as the comparison group to need any of the standard forms of labor induction and did not have a shorter labor once it was induced.
Still, the researchers conclude, the findings do not prove that acupuncture has no use in inducing labor. They say larger studies should look at whether starting acupuncture sooner, or doing more sessions, aids labor induction.
In the meantime, acupuncture at least seems to do no harm.
"There is no evidence of harm from the administration of acupuncture in the postterm period to the mother or fetus," Smith and her colleagues write, "and women may still seek out the use of acupuncture to prepare for labor."