I had never done acupuncture before. It wasn't that I was scared of needles but that it seemed to be another thing I needed to plan for and schedule out, and being that I was heading into my seventh and final IVF cycle, I was already overwhelmed. My husband and I had hopes of adding a second child to our family, and since this was our last chance, I decided to take the plunge into this world of needles, something called "chi," and meridians. I had hoped the weekly visits would better prepare my body for the embryo transfer and help relax me in the process. And they did. I found myself pregnant and decided to stick with my acupuncturist, Erika, a little longer. It was helping—and in ways I didn't expect.
After my pregnancy was confirmed, I continued seeing Erika for the usual symptoms. She specializes in women's health conditions and prenatal care, so I knew she had a lot of experience in my specific situation.
My nausea hit full force early on, along with wicked heartburn that would leave my mouth watering. I saw her weekly, and she'd patiently listen as I would tell her how hard I dry-heaved that morning and how the extra fertility hormones were messing with my emotions. She had a wealth of knowledge when it came to more natural alternatives to the over-the-counter remedies I was used to taking.
The acupuncture process itself relaxed me. No matter how much my mind had been racing that week with thoughts of losing this pregnancy and obstetric providers who didn't seem to understand, I knew I could come to her clinic every Tuesday and escape that preoccupation for half an hour. I'd feel a sort of sleepy calmness roll over me as I'd lay reclined in a room of orange light and soft background music.
"Acupuncture releases endorphins, which is your body's natural sort of calmness and painkiller," Jill Blakeway, DACM, LAC, an acupuncturist, herbalist, and founder of the Yinova Center, tells me. "Part of our job is to be a sympathetic ear and a safe place where people can unpack their feelings without judgment and work on themselves, both physically and emotionally. We don't judge our patients—they can tell us anything."
Erika was exactly that to me. She became one of my safe places where I could tell her how horrible I was feeling without wondering whether I was complaining too much. She supported me not only in inserting the needles that would quell my morning sickness and hormone-induced headaches but by also by taking the time to sit with me as I recounted all my concerns for this pregnancy, like the past miscarriages I'd had or the overwhelming fears that I would wake up one day and find it all over.
I wouldn’t have been able to push out of my comfort zone and advocate for myself if it weren’t for the conversations we had.
There was one night late in my first trimester when I started bleeding heavily. As my husband rushed me off to the emergency room, it was all I could do to hold it together. I was 11 weeks—how could it possibly end like this for me?
I was diagnosed with a subchorionic hemorrhage—basically a big pocket of blood in my uterus, but the baby, thankfully, was seen to be perfect on the ultrasound. The staff gave me some extra pads and told me to follow up with my OB/GYN as soon as possible. The next morning, after the call to schedule an appointment with my provider, it was my acupuncturist I texted immediately after.
"I'm bleeding," I wrote. "They said I hemorrhaged, but the baby is OK." Tears blurred my vision, remembering how things had gone the night before. Erika told me to come in as soon as possible for a treatment.
When I arrived at her clinic, we headed to the treatment room and spent some time talking. She acknowledged the fact that I was completely shaken, leaning in close when I told her the worst parts of the emergency room visit, the blood, the terror I felt when I didn't know my baby's fate. And then she went right to work, placing needles to help with the bleeding in my uterus. She placed more needles in areas great for decreasing anxiety. "We're going to take care of this," she told me as I lay on the treatment bed, her hand resting on my shoulder. Afterward, Erika handed me some sticks that like looked like incense and explained the process of moxibustion—a form of heat therapy burned very close to the skin on acupressure points. This one would be done over my big toe. It could help with the bleeding, she explained.
I took it home, and by three treatments, the bleeding had stopped.
Meanwhile, I was disheartened to learn from my OB clinic I wouldn't be getting another ultrasound to make sure the baby was OK or to check on the size of the bleed for several weeks. And when I started spotting again a week later, the triage nurse at my clinic dismissed my concerns to come in for monitoring. I was told bleeding was common in pregnancy and that unless I was soaking a pad in half an hour, I was probably fine.
Physically, Erika worked with me to treat my symptoms, but even more than that, she showed me I had someone in my corner. It was she who took my concerns seriously. It was she who reassured me and told me to let her know if I started spotting again and she'd get me in for a treatment.
Blakeway tells me one of the stark ways acupuncturists work hand in hand with OB providers to complement therapy was that they tend to see their patients more often than a provider would. "The OBs tend to be quite busy, and we have the time," she says. "We also touch our patients, and people need touch. They respond really well to it."
I knew it wasn't that my health care team didn't care about me or my concerns. Blakeway is correct—the clinic staff just didn't have the time, and there were a lot of other patients dealing with a variety of issues. It was a busy clinic, after all. But Erika was there, one-on-one with me weekly for my whole first trimester and now into my second as the nausea started tapering off and the restless legs and sciatica started raging in full force.
She was the one who suggested I find a new provider when I felt my wishes for my preferred delivery method, a vaginal birth after cesarean, weren't being heard by my current provider. Thanks to her, I got the courage to switch, and my new OB's methods and beliefs line up perfectly with mine. I wouldn't have been able to push out of my comfort zone and advocate for myself if it weren't for the conversations Erika and I had.
I look back now and wonder how I ever could have dismissed acupuncture during pregnancy. For people who have never had acupuncture but are interested in trying it for their pregnancy, Blakeway stresses they should find someone they resonate with because it's important to have a practitioner they feel comfortable talking to. They should find someone who doesn't seem too busy, is compassionate, and is sympathetic to their unique needs. It can also be helpful to find an acupuncturist with some experience either in women's reproductive medicine or a very experienced general acupuncturist who is able to understand the special circumstances surrounding pregnancy.
This entire process has been incredibly healing for my mind and body. I'm more in tune with myself than I ever was. I was able to deal with horrible nausea without going on a prescription medication. I feel like this sciatic pain isn't going to totally suck like I initially thought. But I also had no idea how much Erika would help heal me emotionally and bring down my stress levels. It was the type of help I didn't even realize I needed.