Acupressure for Labor

A recent study in the Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health found that acupressure to LI-4 (a powerful point on the large intestine meridian) applied for the duration of each contraction at the beginning of active labor decreased labor pain immediately and up to two hours afterwards, and reduced the duration of overall labor.

I’ve only read the abstract (and the recap on MassageMag), not the entire article. From a quantitative research perspective, there is definitely room to be critical — it was a single-blind study that relied mainly on a questionnaire measuring subjective labor pain scores, administered during labor (let’s not even begin to list the number of factors that might affect a woman’s perception of pain during labor). I want to get these potential criticisms out of the way, because I have quite the soft spot for research, and seeing it misused — specifically heralding results of faulty studies as amazing discoveries — bothers me as much as the next guy.  But I think that, very, very frequently, public perception swings in the opposite direction when it comes to complementary care. I have seen a number of double-blind, very well organized (and controlled) quantitative studies of acupuncture, for instance, where the introduction and methodology belie a fundamental lack of understanding of Eastern medicine; in these instances, the conclusions drawn don’t add up for me no matter how clean the study is, because they have missed the point from the start. I see the room for error in the acupressure study from a quantitative research perspective, but, at the end of the day, I do not think that airtight quantitative studies are the only, or even the most important, way to measure information.

For me, the fact that the women who used LI-4 reported decreased pain and greater satisfaction is enough to suggest giving it a whirl. We can poke holes in the research all day, but ultimately, if there’s any evidence that it can help, and it’s totally free, easy, accessible, and there are no side effects, why not try it?

LI-4 is one of the shiatsu points that I incorporate into massage to encourage labor. I wouldn’t say that it is the most powerful point used (they are all powerful for different reasons), but I will say that I gave a massage to encourage labor the very day I read the LI-4 study, and, totally unprompted, my client reported feeling some mild contractions when I worked that point specifically. Anecdotal evidence is the new research! I’m joking, but it was pretty neat.

In shiatsu, the large intestine meridian is all about release and letting go, which corresponds nicely with the function of the large intestine from a western perspective if you think about it. Long before I’d ever studied shiatsu, I suffered from chronic headaches, and several people over the years encouraged me to press into the webbing between my thumb and forefinger to bring relief. I don’t know if they had arrived at this point intuitively or picked it up from an acupuncturist along the way, perhaps second- or third-hand, but wherever it came from, it seemed to be common knowledge. I later learned that this point is LI-4, the great eliminator, a powerful point for headaches, stress, constipation, and more. It is all about drawing things out and releasing them, so it makes sense that it is also a great point for labor. Important side note: this point is contraindicated for earlier stages of pregnancy for that very reason. Do not use this point if you are pregnant unless you are trying to facilitate labor.

Self-massage of LI-4 - photo credit: Wako Wa Salon

To locate LI-4, press into the webbing between where your thumb and forefinger meet, and walk the pressure back until you find yourself on a slightly meatier point. When you find the tender spot (pictured above), you’re there. Hold with thumb pressure during contractions, or press for 10- to 15-second intervals when you have a headache or constipation.

It works for me with headaches. It works for clients for a variety of issues both physical and emotional. It worked for women in labor in the Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health study. Maybe it’ll work for you. Try it and let me know!

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