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Acupuncture and Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Can Acupuncture Help IBS?

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Updated May 04, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Acupuncture is sometimes touted as an alternative therapy for irritable bowel syndrome, a common condition that disrupts the normal functioning of the large intestine. While research on acupuncture and irritable bowel syndrome has yielded mixed results so far, there's some evidence that undergoing acupuncture may soothe certain irritable bowel syndrome symptoms (such as pain, diarrhea, and bloating).

How Can Acupuncture Treat Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Acupuncture is a needle-based therapy long practiced in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). According to TCM practitioners, irritable bowel syndrome results from blockages in the body's flow of vital energy (or "chi"), as well as from imbalances within the body's organ systems. By stimulating specific acupuncture points on the body, practitioners aim to restore balance and promote proper functioning of the large intestine. However, scientific studies have yet to determine how or why acupuncture might benefit people with irritable bowel syndrome.

The Science Behind Acupuncture and Irritable Bowel Syndrome

For a 2006 report published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, researchers analyzed six clinical trials on the use of acupuncture in treatment of irritable bowel syndrome. While some of the studies showed that acupuncture helped ease symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, others indicated that acupuncture was no more effective than a placebo in alleviating abdominal pain, diarrhea, bloating, and difficulty with bowel movements. What's more, the report's authors note that most of the studies included in the review were of poor quality.

In a more recent study, scientists tested acupuncture's effects on a group of men and women with irritable bowel syndrome. Published in the journal Gastroenterology Nursing in 2009, the study assigned 29 patients to four weeks of twice-weekly sessions involving either a combination of acupuncture and moxibustion, or a "sham" acupuncture/moxibustion treatment (in which practitioners did not focus on points believed to be connected to the body's energy pathways). By the study's end, those who received the true acupuncture-moxibustion treatment reported a significantly greater decrease in abdominal pain and discomfort, gas, and bloating (compared to those who had received the sham treatment).

Should You Use Acupuncture to Treat Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Due to the lack of supporting research, acupuncture cannot be recommended in treatment of irritable bowel syndrome. However, preliminary research suggests that several other alternative therapies (including hypnosis, yoga, and meditation) show promise in the management of irritable bowel syndrome symptoms. If you're interested in using acupuncture (or any other type of alternative therapy) to manage your irritable bowel syndrome, talk to your doctor about how to incorporate the therapy into your treatment program.

Sources:

Anastasi JK, McMahon DJ, Kim GH. "Symptom management for irritable bowel syndrome: a pilot randomized controlled trial of acupuncture/moxibustion." Gastroenterol Nurs. 2009 Jul-Aug;32(4):243-55.

Lim B, Manheimer E, Lao L, Ziea E, Wisniewski J, Liu J, Berman B. "Acupuncture for treatment of irritable bowel syndrome." Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2006 Oct 18;(4):CD005111.

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  6. Acupuncture and IBS - Is Acupuncture a Natural Cure for IBS

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