Colic Is Hell but Getting Relief Might Be Just a Needle Away

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If you've ever had a baby with colic, you've probably been pushed to the point where you'd try just about anything -- like, anything -- to make the endless crying stop. My middle child had colic, and I'll never forget the hours of pacing the floor with my shrieking infant, feeling completely helpless and frustrated (and, of course, exhausted). So I was fascinated to hear about a recent study which found that acupuncture has been shown to be effective in treating colic symptoms -- since, honestly, there aren't a whole lot of other methods that seem to help. But how does it work? And, more importantly, is it safe?

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First, a little background on colic, if you're not familiar (in which case, consider yourself lucky!). It's a relatively common affliction, affecting approximately one-fifth of all babies, and usually develops between two and four weeks of age.

Colic is characterized by periods of inconsolable crying which can last for hours and can occur at any time of the day or night, but it usually happens between 6 p.m. and midnight (a rather long witching "hour"). Experts don't know what causes colic officially, though theories include a sensitivity to food in the mother's diet (in breastfed babies) and a generalized inability to "self-soothe." And while experts don't know exactly how to treat colic, either, some parents have found that walking and/or swaddling their babies helps to reduce symptoms; other sometimes helpful measures include white noise, massage, and eliminating potentially problematic foods from nursing mothers' diets (such as milk products, caffeine, onions, and cabbage).

More from CafeMom: 11 Colic Survival Tips from Moms Who've Been There

And now, perhaps, acupuncture. In the new study, 157 babies with colic between the ages of two and eight weeks were split into three groups. One group was given ordinary care, the second was given minimal acupuncture, and the third was given Chinese acupuncture. Interestingly, the babies who received acupuncture cried for 40 minutes less per day than those who did not.

At first, 40 minutes might not sound like a lot -- but as parents of colicky babies know, it can feel like a lifetime. So someone sticking needles into your baby might be ... worth it?

But how does it work? We asked the study's lead author, Kajsa Landgren, MD -- and, well, like pretty much everything else that has to do with colic, experts aren't sure.

"It is well documented that acupuncture with stronger stimulations relieves pain, restores gastrointestinal function, and has a calming effect in adults," Landgren told CafeMom, adding that several laboratory studies with rats have shown that acupuncture acts on the same neurotransmitters that are affected by pain and stress.

Unfortunately, she explained, this type of study doesn't answer questions of neurotransmitters or mechanisms. "What we know from this study is that infants who received acupuncture cried less," she says. "During the second intervention week, only 38 percent of the infants who received acupuncture fulfilled the criteria for colic, compared to 65 percent in the control group."

In this trial, Landgren said, infants were treated twice a week for two weeks -- so only four total treatments.

"In babies and children, fewer needles and shorter time is required, compared to treating adults," she explains.

More from CafeMom: The Cause of Colic: Do Doctors Finally Have the Answer?

And the treatment sessions were also a lot shorter than you might think: In one group, a single needle was inserted for 5 seconds; in another, a maximum of five needles was used for no more than 30 seconds each.

"The needling part of the treatment session is very short, but the acupuncturist will need 20 to 30 minutes per family, to listen and give advices about, for example, feeding and comforting," said Landgren.

It should be noted that this was a small study, of course (and that another 2013 study on the topic found no "statistically significant" benefits to giving babies with colic acupuncture). Still, this most recent research might be enough to give some parents hope, and maybe even lead the way toward more and larger studies.

Studies have shown acupuncture to be safe, at least, with fewer risks than such over-the-counter remedies as Tylenol, so that's one thing the ancient treatment has going for it. And if you're wondering about how your baby would react to being stuck with a needle (or needles), bear in mind that five seconds of crying is way better than 40 minutes! (Also, in my own experience with acupuncture, the needles are super thin and barely hurt at all.)

The one silver lining to colic is that at some point or another, it does go away -- with or without treatment. But however short-lived, the condition can be an extremely challenging one for babies and parents alike. So if you can find a safe and effective way for a licensed medical professional, like an acupuncturist, to give your child relief, then by all means, go for it! Even if it does seem a bit ... unconventional.

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