Did you know that using too much clary sage aromatherapy oil to aid labour contractions can have the opposite and actually stop labour? Here, Denise discusses the growing incidence of hyperpolarisation arising from misuse of clary sage oil in labour.
Clary sage is one of the most misused aromatherapy oils for labour. There is no doubt that it can aid the onset of labour when a woman is overdue. It may also help to accelerate the latent phase, encouraging contractions to become well established. However, both parents and professionals are over-using clary sage to the extent that I now receive reports on a regular basis of situations where labour has slowed down or even stopped despite the use of clary sage. Clary sage oil should be considered to be aromatherapy’s equivalent of oxytocin and should only be used when there is a justification to use it to aid contractions; it is, of course, completely contraindicated until term pregnancy (37 weeks).
Prolonged use, excessive doses or continual environmental diffusion of clary sage oil can, in the first instance, cause excessively strong uterine contractions, possibly leading to fetal distress. However, continuing to use clary sage oil, administered either by inhalation or via the skin, may eventually cause a situation in which contractions slow down and eventually stop. This is a condition called hyperpolarisation, an effect that can occur with any pharmacological agent, including drugs, herbal remedies and aromatherapy essential oils. When a drug / oil is commenced, it triggers an action potential of the neurons in the relevant organ to make the body receptive to the substance (this process is called depolarisation). In the case of clary sage oil, it stimulates an action potential to encourage the uterine muscles to contract. Eventually, a stage of optimum effect is reached, after which the oil becomes less effective (repolarisation). Ultimately, a state of hyperpolarisation is reached, in which the clary sage oil will start to have the opposite effect, namely relaxing the uterine muscles and interfering with the progress of physiological labour.
To prevent clary sage oil causing hyperpolarisation and leading to reduced or no contractions, midwives should:
Many midwives will not be surprised to read a recent article in the the Independent on the possible departure of thousands of midwives from the NHS. Whilst the pandemic has exacerbated the pressures, it has really only brought to the fore a dissatisfaction that was already simmering amongst midwives. Midwives want to provide care for families in the way they were trained to care - holistic, individualised safe and empathetic care that provides choices for parents. Midwives also need choices - about how, where and when they work.
NHS maternity services do not provide choices, for expectant parents or for midwives. They are designed to provide medical treatment for the majority, in effect to number crunch within the budget. And the result is dissatisfied parents and dissatisfied, exhausted and angry midwives. Yes, there are some wonderful initiatives in some areas where midwives try to return to nurturing pregnant and birthing women. However in the greater scheme things these are just papering over the cracks of the NHS. All the dimmed lights, aromatherapy oils and gentle music in the world will not solve the fundamental problems of working in the current NHS with inadequate staffing and poor resources.
On the other hand, midwives who have taken the step to work independently have control over their working lives. They can work in a way that suits them and enables them to offer that holistic, individualized, safe and empathetic care for families. Yes, they may not earn as much as they did in the NHS but job satisfaction far outweighs the issue of salary. Some midwives offer full antenatal, birth and postnatal care under one of the organisations through which they can obtain insurance. Others provide pregnancy and postnatal care, including antenatal classes, lactation support, complementary therapies and other maternity related services.
Solving the problems of the NHS maternity services is extremely complex and is not related purely to financial and organisational issues. Any effective solution will require an attitudinal change from government, management, employees and by those who use the services.The NHS comes into its own when dealing with high risk situations, emergencies and end of life situations. Maternity services for the majority do not fit into these categories - pregnancy and birth are generally not high risk or emergency situations and, thankfully, rarely have to deal with end of life issues.
Perhaps one of the options is to adopt the system used in some other countries where birth services and basic antenatal monitoring are provided within the standard maternity services and all other care is offered by midwives and other professionals working independently? That does not necessarily have to mean "privately" as in paid-for by service users, but could involve midwives working in independent practices and contracting their services to the NHS. In that way, services could become responsive to demand and both parents and midwives would have increased satisfaction.
One thing is certain - unless something is done, and done soon, there will be no midwives left in the NHS - and those who remain will become increasingly burned out, putting their own health at risk. This does not bode well for those families having babies, nor for the profession of midwifery.
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