Expectant parents often have questions about complimentary and alternative therapies for pregnancy and birth. These are often known as therapies that are not within the usual realm of the technocratic medical model and include homeopathy, herbs/herbal medicine, acupuncture or acupressure, music therapy, hydrotherapy, yoga, aromatherapy and even massage/ relaxing touch. Here is a brief overview of several therapies:
The founder of homeopathy, Dr. Samuel Hahnemann (1755- 1845), chose the name from the Greek words homois - 'similar' and pathos - 'suffering'. In the fifth century BCE, Hippocrates found that there were two ways of healing: by 'opposites' and by 'similars'. Homeopathy is based on the rule of 'similars'. Modern medicine is based on the rule of 'opposites'. Thus, homeopathy is a system of medical practice that treats a disease, especially by the administration of minute doses of a remedy that would produce symptoms similar to those of the disease in healthy persons.
There are interesting websites about the pros and cons of homeopathy. Here are just two:
Pro: National Center for Homeopathy
Not so pro: Alternative Medicine - A Skeptical Look
The use of medicinal plants to treat infertility can be traced as far back as 400 BCE. According to Rick Clofine DO, FACOOG, "Herbs are not pharmaceutical medications. Herbs are parts of whole plants, not isolated or synthesized chemicals. Herbal effects have to do with the synergistic actions of nature's formulations. Hundreds of different compounds, combined and stored in a very specific way. Drugs and herbs are used differently. Both can be extremely beneficial when used appropriately. There are limited scientific studies that can guarantee the safety of either one in pregnancy. Anecdotal reports are used to make estimates of the relative risk and safety of these compounds in pregnancy. Respect and care should be utilized, along with good common sense and moderation, in the use of any healing substance. The use of conventional and herbal medicine does not have to be mutually exclusive activities. Truly holistic medicine utilizes many therapies and technologies from a balanced healing perspective."
Good resources for herbs during pregnancy include the Herb Research Foundation (www.herb.org) and Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year by Susan S. Weed. See also The Use of Herbs in Pregnancy and Childbirthfor a list of herbs to avoid during pregnancy.
Ancient Chinese medicine, along with a strong alliance with nutrition, identifies over 2,000 acupuncture points connected with pathways called meridians that conduct energy or Qi (pronounced "chee") throughout the body. Illness or symptoms are associated with an imbalance of Qi. Acupuncture uses hair-thin, disposable needles to stimulate specific areas associated with organ functions in order to restore balance and help the body maintain its own health. Acupuncture should only be done by a trained professional. Acupressure, which can be done by anyone, uses finger pressure on points to attempt some of the same effects. Many find it helpful to stimulate labor. In her book Acupuncture in Pregnancy and Childbirth, Zita West draws on her experience as both a midwife and acupuncturist to blend the knowledge of pregnancy and childbirth plus acupuncture.
The idea of music as a healing influence which could affect health and behavior is as least as old as the writings of Aristotle and Plato. Drumming and chanting have been used for both celebrations and healing ceremonies. Certain music invigorates us, while other music relaxes us. Some songs illicit feelings such as romantic, sad, or happy. "Elevator music" is seen by many as simply background noise or "white" noise and may even promote sleep.
According to the Academy of Science in Cooperation with the UN/WHO (International Conference on Society, Stress and Healing Moscow, June 1995), studies show that Music Resonance Therapy can be 4-8 times as effective for the release of psycho-physiological manifestations of stress as a pharmaceutical preparation.
Joyce DiFranco, a childbirth educator and long-time researcher on music therapy, states that "studies using music for its anxiety-reducing properties with surgery patients have indicated that when stress hormones were measured in blood or saliva samples, they were suppressed" (Childbirth Education: Practice, Research & Theory). DiFranco goes on to propose that music can aid an expectant mother's relaxation, respiration and even play an important role during cesarean birth and the postpartum period.
The concept of hydrotherapy use during labor is not new. The first documented water labor (and subsequent birth) occurred in 1803 in France. In 1963, Igor Charkovsky experimented with water and labor in the Soviet Union. Hydrotherapy in labor has been used in the United States for many years.
For many women, hydrotherapy or the use of water as a non-pharmacologic pain relief technique is highly desirable for labor. Hydrotherapy may be in the form of a warm spray of water from the shower aimed at the lower uterine segment to relieve the stretching sensations of the ligaments and areas associated with posterior presentations.
Laboring in a labor tub can increase a laboring woman's pain tolerance (the duration or intensity of pain that the woman is willing to endure). The hydrostatic pressure of the water relieves some of the discomforts of the contractions. Tubs that maintain the water temperature at or around body temperature (98° F - 100° F) also soothe tired and aching muscles and ligaments - furthering relaxation of the mother. Research reviewed in the article by Schorn, McAllister and Blanco show "the benefits of water immersion include faster cervical dilation resulting in shorter labors, increased relaxation and decreased pain." Cervical dilation was more rapid in one group (2.5 cm/hour) as compared to 1.25 cm per hour in a control group. These authors also discuss the rate of infection as a concern with use of water during labor. They site a 1960 published article by Siegel stating that water does not enter the vagina during tub bathing. Schorn, McAllister and Blanco also site their own study at Upland Family Birthing Center in Upland, California which found no difference in the rate of chorioamnionitis or endometritis between water immersion and non-water immersion groups studied (5).
Buoyancy [a concept discovered by Greek mathematician Archimedes (287-212 BC)] in the labor tub allows for an almost weightless feeling. Women who need to move during labor to enhance progress truly benefit from the ease of movement in a labor tub.
According to Sheila Kitzinger in her book, The Complete Book of Pregnancy and Childbirth: "Lying in warm water increases venous pressure so that veins can return blood to the heart more efficiently. It also enhances cardiac action and slows the pulse rate." Kitzinger also includes a wonderful section on "Exploring Birth Movements in Water" - the photos are a must-see for those working with women and labor tubs.
Prenatal yoga postures may increase stamina and endurance, strengthen lower back and abdominal muscles, help the mother to visualize herself as strong and powerful during the event of birth, assist in increasing focus during labor and delivery, transform anxiety and stress into beneficial energy and help the mother get back into shape quicker after the birth. Yoga allows for gentle stretching and preparation of some of the same muscles used during the birth process and introduces rhythmical breathing and relaxation as a life skill
not just one for labor and birth. A yoga breathing technique, ujayi, has the mother to take in air slowly through the nose, filling the lungs entirely, and exhaling completely. Learning how to do ujayi breathing gets the mother ready for the "cleansing breaths" before and after each contraction and by conditioning the mother to stay calm during stressful times. All of this reduces stress and promotes a healthy pregnancy!
The word "aromatherapy" was first used in the 1920's by a French perfumer named Rene Gattfosse. The use of the word "therapy" gives the impression of the need for treatment of an illness. Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils from plants. Aromatherapy oils can not only be used as inhalants but they can also be massaged into the skin. The essential oils used in aromatherapy are concentrated extracts taken from the roots, leaves, or blossoms of plants. Each essential oil contains its own mix of active ingredients, and this mix determines the healing properties of the oil. Some oils promote physical healing-for example, some are able to relieve swelling. Others are used for their emotional value, such as lavender, as they may encourage relaxation or make a room smell nice. The essential oil derived from orange blossom, for example, contains a large amount of ester, an active ingredient thought to induce a calming effect.
It is not fully understood how or why essential oils produce the effects that they do. One obvious way that essential oils work is through the sense of smell. This sense is incredibly powerful-according to some estimates, about 10,000 times stronger than any other sense. The "smell" receptors in your nose communicate with two structures that are embedded deep in your brain and serve as storehouses for emotions and memories. These structures are called the amygdala and hippocampus. When essential oil molecules are inhaled, they affect these parts of the brain directly. Researchers believe that stimulation of these structures can affect our physical, emotional, and mental health.
If you would like additional information on aromatherapy, you might want to visit the web site for the Seattle based National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy. NAHA's mission is "to revive the knowledge of the medicinal use of aromatic plants and essential oils to its fullest extent and to restore aromatherapy to a truly holistic professional art and science. NAHA is the leader in promoting and elevating true aromatherapy through the active dissemination of educational material to the general public, trade/professional associations, business owners and practitioners."
Getting a massage is more than just a pampering treat. During pregnancy, massage may stimulate blood flow, increase in muscle tone and flexibility while alleviating troublesome leg cramps and muscle spasms. Massage is also a great way to relieve stress and the general discomforts your body experiences during pregnancy. During labor, effleurage can be performed by the laboring woman or by her partner/husband or her labor support (doula). Rhythmic slow circles are "drawn" with fingertips on the abdomen, thighs or arms. The sensation of pain is reduced by varying amounts, depending on the individual.
This illustrates the Gate Control Theory and is the same basic principle at work when you stub your toe and then rub it, reducing the pain. Pain fibers taking the pain stimulus to the brain are smaller and the sensation travels slower than the touch fibers, which are large. When touch and pain are stimulated simultaneously, the touch sensation travels to the brain and "closes the gate" in the brain, limiting the amount of pain perceived by the brain. Touch may also include counterpressure, backrubs, heat/cold therapies and even acupuncture.