Health, pregnancy, Trying to Conceive

Acupuncture Before and During Pregnancy

The month I ended up getting pregnant, I was four month past my miscarriage, and about nine months into trying to conceive a child. I’d already gotten pregnant once, though it didn’t stick, so my doctors weren’t worried, and I knew that it would be at least a few months before I could take any concrete steps towards investigating my fertility, but I was starting to feel powerless. So I wanted to try something. So I started looking to some alternative options. I’ve already talked about my experience trying the Circle + Bloom fertility meditation program, but today I wanted to talk a little bit about the other step I took to try to take a little more control of my fertility journey: acupuncture.

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Of course, the scientific jury is out when it comes to the efficacy of things like acupuncture. On one hand, there is some evidence that it does something, but on the other hand, there is also evidence that it might be the placebo effect. So I realize that opinions of this might vary. Personally, I chose to hope that it could at least improve my general health and quality of life, even if it didn’t “make me get pregnant.” And I will state up front that I really don’t think it had much to do with the fact that I happened to get pregnant the first month of treatment. I also went because I was interested in seeing it might have some positive effect on my chronic migraines, which were proving difficult to manage as I avoided NSAIDs while trying to conceive.

So first a little bit about my acupuncturist: He’s trained in a style of acupuncture known as the Five-Elements Tradition of acupuncture, which differs somewhat from the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) style of acupuncture. Basically, the main difference is that instead of putting needles in a whole bunch of points at once and then leaving you to relax for a while, the acupuncturist generally needles one point at a time by placing the needle, pushing it in until it “connects” with the acupuncture point, and then removing the needle. He will occasionally do a couple points where he places a couple or a few needles at a time and leaves them for a bit, but he’s in the room interacting with me the entire time. We actively discuss how I’m feeling and what reaction I had to each point. This turned out to be particularly helpful the first time I went because some of the points he needled on my spine ended up making me feel really dizzy! He also uses moxa, which is a processed form of mugwort. There are different ways to apply moxa, but his technique is to place a small ball of mugwort directly on the skin, set it smoldering (he says he “lights” it, but nothing is actively flaming on my skin!), and then removing it when I say I can feel the heat.

One of my concerns with this style of acupuncture and moxa was that it seemed like it would be more likely to leave a mark on my skin, since the needles go a little deeper, and the moxa is placed directly on my skin. So I wanted to say that I have never had any marks leftover after my appointments. Occasionally, I will have a small amount of pinkness to my skin from the increased bloodflow or warmth, but it has always faded before I even get home (it’s about a 15-20 minute walk). Anyway, other than that, I thought I’d talk a bit about the specific things I’ve found have been helped by the acupuncture.

Migraines/Headaches: I’ve suffered from migraine headaches from about the time I was in college, although I’ve never found a medication that I like to relieve them. I’ve found some level of relief by changing my diet and determining what food triggers I have, but I’ve since realized that another major trigger is the weather. So I know that I will likely continue to have them at least sometimes. Not only have I not found a medication that works for me without unreasonable side effects, but I also knew, going into trying to conceive, that I wouldn’t be able to take most migraine medications if I got pregnant anyway. So one of the main reasons I looked into acupuncture was to see if it helped my headaches and migraines.

I have to say that, yes, it has definitely helped. I have headaches way less frequently, and when I do, they’re less severe. Even my migraines are often just a little aura and nausea and not a full-blown, skull-pounding headache, which is much more manageable. It’s particularly nice because severe headaches and aura can be a sign of worrying pregnancy complications, so keeping my migraines at bay has also kept me from worrying that a headache is something more.

Nausea/Digestive Issues: When I was just shy of five weeks, I was having some nausea, bloating, and other digestive issues. I also had an acupuncture appointment. I left the appointment feeling completely better. Seriously, all my early pregnancy symptoms were just gone. For like 2-3 days. I actually freaked out that it meant I was going to have another loss, until they came back later the next week. But it was amazing to me that sticking a few needles in my body could have that strong an effect. Since then, I’ve gone from having appointments every week, to every other week, and now about once a month, but my acupuncture always feels like a kind of reset of my digestive system. I always feel less bloated after my appointment, and early on in pregnancy, when I was dealing with nausea, after acupuncture was often when my appetite was the strongest. No, it’s not always perfect, and I’ve also puked right after an acupuncture appointment (though it still helped my digestion in other ways and I always felt ultimately better), but it’s been a real help in making me feel more like myself, physically.

Joint/Muscle Pain and Cramping: This is a relatively recent one, but since I’ve found that I definitely need to sleep on my side, I’ve found that I have pain my hips from the pressure of my body on my hip joint while I’m sleeping. But since mentioning it to my acupuncturist, he makes sure to treat the hip joint, and I’ve found that my hips are less achy. Even though they still get sore in the middle of the night, they recover faster and I no longer hobble around half the day while my aching hips work out their kinks.

Additionally, I started getting Charley horses in my calves around 20 weeks, sometimes really painfully. I’ve started eating a banana every day to help, but I still sometimes have some mild cramping. At my last appointment, the acupuncturist placed a needle in my leg and while connecting with the acupuncture point, I felt the sensation go straight through my leg, to my calf, and then release completely, relaxing my calf muscle after the needle was pulled out. Since then, my calves are much less crampy.

Congestion: This one is somewhat related to headaches, since most of my non-migraine headaches are due to congestion, but I thought I’d mention it separately. It’s really, really disconcerting to have needles placed in your face, but the effect is undeniable. Especially in the aftermath of my summer cold, acupuncture along with the neti pot really helped work out some of the deep-seated congestion, plus it helps keep my general, pregnancy-related congestion at bay. Totally worth needles in my face.

Trying to Conceive: I’ve saved this for last because it was really something that I can say with any certainty was helped. But one thing my acupuncturist talked with me a lot about was my miscarriage and my lingering feelings of grief. He specifically asked about where in my body I felt like I was holding emotions around my miscarriage, and I do feel that the relaxation and care that I get from the appointments helped ease my anxiety and helped me release lingering feelings of grief. Plus, the somewhat-medical aspect of the treatment helped me feel like I was doing something to increase my chances of conceiving, despite the fact that I had no reason to believe I had an actual medical problem. Plus, it couldn’t have been a bad thing that it helped me relax during the times when I might obsess about whether or not I was going to conceive. In fact, I was so accepting and not obsessive that I hadn’t even convinced myself I was pregnant the month I ended up conceiving.

I know that acupuncture is one of those controversial things, with some people swearing by them for everything and others considering it complete snake oil. I will say, my experiences have led me to believe that there’s something to it, but I don’t expect it to work miracles, and of course I consult my doctor for acute medical problems. And, like any other body-related service, whether it’s a yoga teacher or an OB/Gyn, it’s important to find someone whose practice and personality work well with you (for example, in addition to helping my migraines, my acupuncturist is a devoted tea-drinker and we frequently end up swapping tea recommendations!). Also, make sure you find someone who has experience working with pregnant women, since there are points that are contraindicated in pregnancy (some of which you might not expect).

NB: This post is intending to share my personal experiences and shouldn’t be considered medical or health advice. Definitely ask your doctor and do your own research before getting any kind of treatment.

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Reviews, Trying to Conceive

Review: Circle + Bloom Natural Cycle Fertility Meditation Program

I’ve mentioned before that I used this meditation program while we were trying to conceive after my miscarriage last fall, but I’ve never sat down and written out my thoughts on the program. I thought I’d share that here.

I first started my meditation practice in college, over ten years ago, when a course I was in led me to join a local Zen Buddhist group. I maintained a semi-regular zazen practice from that time on, even meeting up with a couple Zen groups in the DC area after I left college and moved back for grad school. As a practitioner of zazen, I always kind of looked down on guided meditations, but when we first started trying to conceive, I found I was having trouble sleeping and turned to guided meditations on the Insight Timer app to help.

After my miscarriage, we spent a couple months trying in a more casual way, but after a few disappointing months, I was starting to find myself in an odd mental space. So I started looking into ways I could feel like I was taking control of the process. I started tracking fertility signs again, I found an acupuncturist, and I decided to try the Circle + Bloom meditation program. The program is normally $59 through the Circle + Bloom website, but I found it through this site for $34. It’s 29 recordings, one meditation per day for a 28-day cycle, plus one extra for right around ovulation. The Circle + Bloom website also offers a free fertility relaxation meditation so you can see the approximate format and quality of the meditations before paying for any of them. The free meditation is about a half an hour long, while the program meditations are 15-20 minutes each.

Each meditation starts with a guided relaxation. One of my favorite things about this program is that the guided relaxation was different each time. Throughout the 28-day program, it seemed like they cycled through about half a dozen different guided relaxation visualizations. One of my favorites was the visualization of a screen passing through your body, filtering out things that weren’t serving you, whether mental or physical. But I mostly enjoyed that I didn’t get too “used” to any one relaxation visualization as it was a different one each time. The relaxation was my favorite part of each meditation, as I really did feel totally relaxed. I tended to either lie down to listen to the meditation, or else recline in a comfortable chair or on the sofa. I usually covered myself with a blanket, at least loosely, especially if I was on the sofa and wanted to make sure my cat didn’t try to steal my earbud wires while I was meditating.

From there, each meditation is distinct, focusing on a new process in the body as you progress through the month. At the beginning, when you start out on Day 1, the program focuses on the hormones that are being produced in your brain to regulate your menstrual cycle, and later signal ovulation and other processes. I really liked these visualizations, as they gave me something concrete and even scientific to focus on each day, rather than some vague affirmation about my body. As the 28-day program goes on, you learn about how the different hormones effect different physical changes in the body, which I found fascinating.

Each meditation closes with a mental component of addressing something that could be affecting your emotional or mental health as you go through the month. These include general anxiety about the process of trying to conceive to feelings of closeness with your partner. It’s a nice way to close each meditation and left me feeling relaxed and hopeful. I found that I always felt better ending the meditation than I did before I started, and even found that the level of relaxation could help get rid of a mild headache or even mimic the effects of a nap when I was feeling tired that day. I didn’t always have time to do my meditation first thing in the morning, so it was nice to have the break in the middle of my work day, or even in the evening between work and rehearsal.

One thing to note about this program is that it is very obviously intended for people with no known health problems. It was great for me because the meditations encouraged you to think of your body and strong and capable, without any physical impediment to conception, but this seems like it could be a problem for anyone who knows they have a physical issue with fertility. They do offer separate meditation programs for people with PCOS or people using assisted reproductive technology, so perhaps those programs are more considerate of the fact that the “my body knows what to do” affirmation may not work for everyone.

Finally, the one thing I cannot speak to is how the program would work if I hadn’t conceived right away. I happened to conceive the first month I used the program, though I doubt it was because of the program. I don’t know how I would have felt to have gone through the visualizations of conception and implantation if I had ended up getting my period that month. I do know that the meditation helped me not obsess over conception during my two-week wait that month because it gave me a set time to meditate on my fertility, and then I was more easily able to let it go for the rest of my day. If you’ve tried this program and not conceived right away, I’d definitely welcome any comments about how you felt in the months when you didn’t conceive. I do feel like the program meditations are good at providing empowering visualizations without being judgmental about your body, so I don’t think I would have felt like I’d “failed” to visualize things well enough if it “hadn’t worked.”

All-in-all, I found this a thoroughly worthwhile purchase, even just for the one month. I considered purchasing the meditation program for pregnancy, but my inherent fear of another miscarriage made me nervous about buying anything for my pregnancy before I felt like I was “safe” and at this point, I’m nearly halfway through and it almost seems like a waste. But I do really enjoy Circle + Bloom’s meditation programs and would recommend them to someone thinking about a mindfulness program for fertility or general health.

NB: I am not affiliated in any way with Circle + Bloom and have not been provided with any incentive to give this review. The program was purchase out of my own pocket and all thoughts are my own.