Pregnant women in early labor who use ice massage at specific acupuncture points on the hand may experience less pain, according to a new study in the Journal of Midwifery and Women’s Health (2003;48:317’21). This study suggests ice massage is a safe, non-invasive method of decreasing a woman’s labor pain.
In the new study, 49 pregnant women between the ages of 16 and 38 years in early labor received ice massage on a specific acupuncture point on the hand (called Large Intestine 4 or LI-4 in Traditional Chinese Medicine) at the beginning of a contraction, continuing until the contraction stopped. This was repeated on the other hand when the next contraction started.
The massage was carried out on each hand for 20 minutes or until after the fourth contraction, whichever came first. Crushed ice in a small hand towel was used to administer the massage.
All women were asked to rate the intensity of their pain during each contraction while receiving ice massage (with 1 indicating mild discomfort and 5 indicating excruciating pain). Women were asked to complete a questionnaire after delivery to measure their memory of the pain. All women were free to use conventional pain-relief therapies, such as narcotics or epidurals, as needed during their labor.
Intensity of labor pain and memory of pain were both significantly reduced by ice massage. Pain-intensity scores were lowered by 19% after ice massage in the right hand and by almost 50% in the left hand. It is unknown why there was such a difference between each hand. Memory of pain intensity following delivery was reduced from “distressing” to “discomforting.”
LI-4 is located in the webbing between the thumb and index finger on the back of the hand. Traditional Chinese medical texts describe the stimulation of LI-4 to reduce labor pain and to strengthen contractions. LI-4 is also used in treating other types of pain syndromes.
While acupuncturists typically use sterile needles to stimulate LI-4, other forms of medicine, such as acupressure or Shiatsu, stimulate the point with touch. It is not clear from this study whether it is the pressure or the cold applied to the point that is beneficial.
Many women are hesitant about using narcotic or epidural pain therapy, due to concerns over whether their child will be adversely affected or about the way they will feel during delivery. Access to these medications is limited or not available at all in many third world countries.
In contrast, ice massage is convenient and can be performed by anyone. While ice massage is helpful during the early stage of labor, it is not clear whether these same benefits would be observed during the latter stages. More research is needed to answer that question.