Can Acupuncture Actually Help With IUD Insertion Pain?

Channing Smith

Unless you’ve had all of your group chat notifications on Do Not Disturb for years now, there’s a high probability you’ve heard an IUD insertion horror story from a friend, sister, or colleague. Though there’s a gap in research on piain on people with a uterus (unsurprising), some studies estimate that up to 78% of people who have never given birth report experiencing moderate to severe pain from getting an IUD placed.

In general, IUDs are a super-reliable form of birth control, and certain kinds can prevent pregnancy for as long as 12 years. But there’s not a standard form of pain management for the procedure that inserts the tiny T-shaped device all the way up into the uterus—your ob-gyn will probably just tell you to pop an ibuprofen beforehand to cope with cramping.

More recently, reproductive health clinics like Tia have offered a wellness-centered option in conjunction with the IUD placement to soothe pain and calm patients: acupuncture. But is that enough to get you through the pain? We spoke to reproductive health and traditional Chinese medicine experts to find out.

First of all, why aren’t there painkillers available for IUD procedures?

IUD insertions are no joke: Your medical provider is using a long surgical instrument called a tenaculum to insert the IUD past the cervix and into the uterus. In the cervical area, there are nerve endings from three different nerves that can be hit, potentially causing pain within the cervix and pelvic area, explains Sonia Bahlani, MD, an ob-gyn, pelvic pain specialist, and author of Dr. Sonia’s Guide to Navigating Pelvic Pain. Not to mention, it can be an emotionally difficult and especially stress-inducing trip to the gyno. “The insertion procedure can be scary and painful, particularly for patients who have had prior trauma, anxiety, or negative experiences with IUD insertions or gynecological procedures,” says Jessica Horwitz, MPH, FNP-C, Tia’s chief clinical officer.

Yet most doctor’s offices do not offer pain medications, anesthesia, or muscle relaxers when you arrive for an IUD placement. One hypothesis is that medical professionals do not always take women’s pain seriously—and this is an even bigger issue for Black women and other marginalized communities. Tia published a recent survey that concluded that 48% of all women and 58% of Black women have had a doctor dismiss or ignore their symptoms. The same thing is not happening for men’s reproductive health procedures. “You wouldn’t do a prostate biopsy and give them just an ibuprofen beforehand,” Dr. Bahlani says.

Tia does offer the medication misoprostol to help open the cervix to make IUD insertion easier, in particular for anyone who might have a difficult insertion for a variety of reasons, says Horwitz. But having more options to relax the body and mind before getting an IUD is one of the reasons why Tia incorporated a service that includes both acupuncture and the IUD insertion back-to-back.

How does acupuncture work before IUD insertion?

You won’t feel the needles, promise. Acupuncture is all about stimulating specific pressure points. “This tells the brain to release beta-endorphins, hormones that are our body’s natural opioids,” Horwitz explains. This can potentially reduce pain, inflammation, and cramping that might happen during the IUD insertion, and the feel-good hormones may calm anxiety before the procedure. Also, acupuncture can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, according to Dr. Bahlani.

And it’s not just wellness culture that’s all about acupuncture: The practice has some documented medical benefits too. Licensed acupuncturist Barbara Siminovich-Blok, ND, clinical director at Ora acupuncture and welness practice in New York City, cites 2022 research suggesting that acupuncture can be helpful for pelvic pain. More-recent studies claim that acupuncture on a regular basis could be beneficial for chronic endometriosis and severe period cramps. Your acupuncture treatment can be customized to your own pain or injuries, and your acupuncture practitioner can target pressure points that are in front of the uterine area if you decide to have a treatment done before an IUD insertion, says Siminovich-Blok.

Are there any downsides to acupuncture before IUD insertion?

On the other side of things, because acupuncture is so individualized, it’s not always standardized, and every single acupuncturist does the treatment slightly differently—that makes it hard to scientifically prove that acupuncture has significant benefits before an IUD insertion, Dr. Bahlani points out. It definitely can’t hurt to try it, though. You likely wouldn’t have anything bad happen or have more pain before you get your IUD placed. It just may not be as effective for one person as it may be another in quelling the pain, she says.

Acupuncture is not meant to clear your body of all pain during your IUD placement. “It can be used as an adjunctive therapy, combined with other ways to mitigate and manage someone’s pain,” says Dr. Bahlani. Depending on the situation, adding a nerve block or muscle relaxers are valid additional options to combat cervical and pelvic pain.

Having an acupuncture treatment before IUD insertion is not for everyone, says Siminovich-Blok. If you have a reproductive cancer diagnosis or other acute gynecological issue, you likely shouldn’t try acupuncture before an IUD (and may not be a candidate for an IUD) and should double-check with your doctor first.

If you’re thinking about an IUD, the best thing you can do is advocate for yourself. Ask your doctor what the management plan is to prevent ending up in significant pain (if it turns out you don’t end up having much pain, even better) in order to be proactive and ensure that your insertion goes smoothly.

Originally Appeared on Glamour