Being a new mother comes with its own set of worries – and mastitis is one of them. Most women have probably never thought about how to keep milk supply up, how to make time to pump, or how to avoid developing mastitis before they started nursing… and now it’s all they can think about.
Causes, symptoms and early signs of mastitis
Mastitis, a painful inflammation of the breast tissue, commonly occurs in the first few weeks of breastfeeding, though it can spring up at any point while nursing.
The causes can be due to restriction of milk flow from a blocked duct, infrequent nursing, a poor latch, an infection, or even a tight bra.
It’s very important that if and when you develop symptoms like fever, body aches, or extremely tender red breasts that you don’t self diagnose and instead see a health professional immediately, as not seeking treatment can lead to an abscess. These days, many women prefer to combine both the expertise and knowledge of their GP with that of a more holistic practitioner like an acupuncturist. And why not – the practices of Traditional Chinese Medicine aim to restore the body's balance and harmony through acupuncture, diet, herbal therapy, meditation, physical exercise, and massage (a go-to remedy for breast pain).
The good news is that once you are aware of the signs to watch out for, there are practical ways you can try to help ease the pain and discomfort as well as prevent mastitis from getting worse.
Mastitis and Chinese Medicine (TCM)
Similar to Western views, Chinese Medicine sees mastitis as stagnation in the body – but rather than it being stagnation of the milk in the milk ducts, it would be seen as a blockage of the Qi (or energy flow of the body) and blood, which then leads to heat.
Chinese Medicine and breastfeeding
The period after giving birth in China is called Yuezi, and is hugely respected as a time to rest and eat nourishing food like broths and tonics in order to start recovery from the pregnancy and birth. This is a prime example of how seriously and highly Chinese Medicine regard rest and recovery after childbirth in contrast to many in the West who jump right back into work and routines straight after giving birth – which can cause a wide variety of physical and mental health issues in new mothers like postpartum depression.
Qi has a tendency to stagnate for many reasons, such as, lack of physical movement may lead to exhaustion, therefore there is no motivational force in the body to keep the Qi and blood flowing freely in order to nourish all organs. So when it comes to breastfeeding, it’s not far fetched that the problem lies most often with overexertion. New mothers are, quite simply, exhausted, blood deficient from the birth (to differing degrees), and don’t have the energy to prevent this type of stagnation. This stagnation in turn causes an accumulation of heat resulting in high fever and achy joints and an array of other symptoms. The bottom line is, when breastfeeding, it is essential to get enough rest and sleep as much as you can.
TCM tips for easier breastfeeding and home remedies for mastitis
1. Acupuncture for mastitis
The holistic approach of using herbs as well as acupuncture treatments for mastitis has been very popular and effective with many new mothers who are dealing with breast pain from blocked ducts. Herbs are prescribed by the acupuncturist and the session is conducted by the qualified practitioner.
Acupuncture treatments for mastitis mainly focus on removing the blockage, clearing the heat and supporting the underlying Qi and blood deficiency. Typically, your practitioner would want to see you several days in a row to ensure the Qi is moving and the breasts are free of blockages. An initial consultation will typically be 75-90 minutes and then follow up treatments will be 45-60 minutes depending on your practitioner.
There are some acupressure points such as SI11 which is on your back – approximately in the middle of each shoulder blade – that can help with blood flow. Your practitioner can show you exactly where it is so that you can ask your partner at home to massage it for you as often as you want for 5 minutes on each side.
2. Chinese herbs for blocked milk ducts
In terms of herbal remedies to ease the discomfort and pain of mastitis, dandelion and liquorice are both great at reducing heat as well as targeting the meridians involved; the stomach and the liver. It is essential not to self-medicate with Chinese herbs as they are prescribed specially for you and will take into consideration all sorts of other things besides the mastitis such as milk flow, sleep, digestion etc. Always seek the advice of a health professional.
Massage technique for blocked milk ducts
This may sound like agony, but alongside treatment by your health professional, you can try self-massaging after using a warm compress to help with stagnation and improve lactation – a very popular home remedy for treating mastitis.
Massaging when you have mastitis can be hugely painful (and sadly there is no way around that) however it can be hugely effective. The best thing is to deeply massage while feeding to help clear the breast of the blockages. Take deep breaths and massage toward the nipple.
When it comes to breastfeeding, make sure that you are going easy on yourself physically and emotionally, and remember, you’re doing your best.