Acupuncture & Women's Health

A Short Guide on Acupuncture & Herbs for Mastitis

Discover the benefits that acupuncture and oriental medicine can have for the condition mastitis. Mastitis is a common condition amongst breastfeeding moms, however many of us don’t realize that it can be potentially dangerous if left untreated. Bacteria enters the breast and can cause pain, redness, and inflammation. In addition, the woman can develop high fever, cold/flu-like symptoms, un-smooth lactation and potentially pus discharge. These symptoms come on rather abruptly and usually affects one breast at a time. Most often, mastitis is extremely painful and inconvenient and often lead women to want to stop breastfeeding. Be that as it may, as stated above, if left untreated, any fever developed from the condition can spread and be potentially deadly.

Herbal Treatments vs. Western Medicine

            In the west, there are a surprisingly short list of treatments for mastitis. You will usually see the same, or close to the same recommendations for treating or helping mastitis along.

Western medicine recommendations to help treat mastitis:

  • Warm or cold compress on the affected breast

  • Self-massage toward the nipple to help release clogged duct while nursing.

  • Empty the breast often and efficiently.

  • Hand-expressing before feeding to help the pain while nursing.

  • Pump often to avoid overfilling of the breast before a feeding.

  • Change breastfeeding positions and be sure to prioritize the affected breast

  • If the mother’s symptoms are present less than 24 hours, a doctor may advise her to take over the counter pain killers for any pain associated with mastitis such as Tylenol or Ibuprofen. If the symptoms last more than 24 hours or grow worse, antibiotics will be prescribed usually for a 7-10-day period.

While these methods have proven effective for breastfeeding mothers, many mothers are concerned with antibiotics being transferred to the baby while breastfeeding during that 10-day period. Most times it is said to be safe if antibiotics are needed but there are wonderful herbs and formulas that are known to help with the issues of mastitis that date back thousands of years and are fairly accessible. It is important to note that the herbs that will follow all have properties that would help heal mastitis, that each patient should be looked at individually to come up with the best combination of herbs to suit that person, and the herbs are meant to work in groups together not alone but usually in groups of 5 or more. There are also some caveats that providers should be aware of with each herb when recommending a formula for a patient, but all herbs have tremendous benefits for acute mastitis.

Herbs associated with treating mastitis & their functions:

  • Snake Gourd Fruit – Gua Lou – also known as Chinese Cucumber, balances qi and voids lung heat. In regards to mastitis it dissipates nodules, reduces abscesses, and dissolves pus. Should be used in small amounts and avoid using high amounts of this herb during pregnancy and after to avoid toxicity.

  • Cinnamon Bark – Rou Gui – warms the spleen and kidneys and assists in the generation of qi and blood. Do not use in those with yin deficiency with heat signs.

  • Honeysuckle Flowers – Jin Yin Hua – dispels toxicity and clears heat. Use carefully when there is qi or yin deficiency, and spleen or stomach deficiency when there is cold.

  • Dried Ginger – Gan Jiang – warms spleen and drives out cold. Use caution with patients on blood thinners as it may enhance risk of bleeding when used together with the prescription blood thinner, and use with caution during pregnancy.

  • Licorice – Gan Cao – relieves pain and harmonizes the effects of other herbs that are put in a formula with it. It also feeds spleen qi, clears heat, and gets rid of toxicity. Those with heart conditions, high blood pressure (it can raise blood pressure), excess dampness, nausea, vomiting, and those who retain water should avoid large amounts of this herb.

  • Angelica Roots – Bai Zhi – relieves win-damp painful cold obstruction. Reduces swelling and dries pus. Do not use with yin or blood deficiency. Helps clear flu/cold like symptoms that come with mastitis.

  • Goji Berries – Qou Qi Zi – also known as wolfberry, tones yin of liver and kidneys. Not for use in someone with spleen deficiency with dampness.

  • Dandelion – Pu Gong Ying – clear heat and toxicity. Increases lactation, treats multiple types of inflammation. Not for use if one has yang deficiency.

These along with several other options make for potentially great herbal formulas in the treatment of mastitis. The main goal when coming up with an herbal formula for your patient experiencing mastitis is to find herbs that clear heat and relieve toxicity. You want to get qi flowing and dissipate nodulation. Two formulas that are great for mastitis are Gua Lou Niu Bang Zi Tang and Shen Xiao Gua Lou San, both of which have several of the ingredients listed above.

Acupuncture for Mastitis

            In TCM, mastitis is known as Toxic Heat Accumulation with Qi and Blood Stagnation which is essentially in the western world is accepted as infection and inflammation. In regards to acupuncture, it can not only be used to treat mastitis, but prevent it as well. While acupuncture is not used on the actual breast, there are certain acupuncture points that relate to the mastitis in order to balance the flow of qi and combat the infection. Acupuncture would also serve to relax the mother and relieve pain which will provide a sense of well-being and speed up the healing process. There are obviously multiple ways of treating this diagnosis depending on the individual, but there are some acupuncture points that should not be missed.

Six key acupuncture points (and their functions) essential for the treatment of mastitis:

  • SI1 – Shao Ze – English name: Lesser March – associated with TCM pattern liver fire. Used for febrile diseases, loss of consciousness, insufficient lactation, acute mastitis, sore throat, headache and conjunctivitis. On the ulnar side of the little finger, .1 cun distance from the corner of the nail
  • SI11 – Tian Zong – English name: Celestial Gathering – associated with TCM patterns liver qi stagnation and lung qi deficiency. Used for pain in the shoulder/arm, asthma, acute mastitis, breast problems, and emotional issues. On the scapula in the depression of the subscapular fossa, level with the 4th thoracic vertebra.
  • ST15 – Wuyi – English name: Roof – associated with TCM patters lung qi deficiency and liver qi stagnation. Used for pain in the chest, cough, asthma, acute mastitis, breast pain, general itching/pain/heaviness in the whole body. Located on the chest 4 cun lateral to the anterior median line (AML) in the 2nd intercostal space (ICS). Under this point there are important organs and main artery, do not puncture deeply.

  • ST16 – Yingchuang – English name: Breast Window – associated with TCM pattern liver qi stagnation. Used for chest tightness/pain, breast pain, asthma, cough, acute mastitis, and lip swelling. Located on the chest 4 cun lateral to the AML in the 3rd ICS. Under this point there are important organs and main artery, do not puncture deeply.

  • ST18 – Rugen – English name: Breast root – associated with TCM pattern liver qi stagnation. Used for any issues involving the breasts, chest tightness, acute mastitis, insufficient lactation, cough, and asthma. Located on the chest below the nipple in the 5th ICS 4 cun lateral to the AML. Under this point there are important organs and main artery, do not puncture deeply.
  • ST39 – Xiajuxu – English name: Lower Great Hollow – categorized as a sea of blood point. Used for diarrhea, abdominal pain, muscular atrophy, weakness/numbness/pain in the lower leg. Located 9 cun below ST35 one finger width from the anterior crest of the tibia.

There are also some acupuncture points that have the ability to bring down fever and reduce stress which women experience with the mastitis diagnosis. The liver, gall bladder, and stomach meridians all go through the nipple which can many times having cracked nipples can be the cause of the mastitis to begin with.

Can TCM Help Symptoms of Mastitis?

            The effectiveness of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practices such as acupuncture and herbal formulas have been seen by acupuncturists all over the world, not to mention the treatments have stood the test of time. However, the western world, like with most issues that can be treated with TCM, needs to catch up with the benefits it can provide for diagnoses such as mastitis. A meta-analysis done in 2018 shows encouraging data in regards to the effectiveness of TCM on acute mastitis finding shorter duration of pain and improving cure time. Larger scale studies will need to be done to confirm these findings, but there is no denying that there is promising information for the application of various forms of TCM on acute mastitis. The application of TCM has positive effects on mothers experiencing mastitis, and early intervention with these methods is key for the nursing mother.