Acupuncture and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

IBS is a digestive disorder that causes repeated bouts of abdominal cramps, bloating, and either diarrhea or constipation. It’s different from the similar-sounding inflammatory bowel disease — an umbrella term for ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, two more-serious digestive disorders that damage the lining of the colon.

The cause of IBS is not yet known. However, we do know what does not cause IBS. IBS is not a structural problem, meaning there is no anatomical change, nor is it biochemical or infectious in nature. Researchers are exploring the theory that there are direct links between the brain and the gastrointestinal system, which would explain why flare-ups of IBS are sometimes triggered by emotional upsets or stress.

Several clinical studies have directly investigated the use of acupuncture in IBS patients.  One study has directly investigated the use of acupuncture versus relaxation therapy in IBS patients.[1] This research found that patients’ quality-of-life and gastrointestinal symptom scores were equally improved in both groups, with a statistically significant reduction in abdominal pain. However, when the patients were followed for a 4-week period post-trial period, only in the acupuncture group did pain reduction persist. Furthermore, a significant reduction in stress perception was also observed in the acupuncture group, but not in the relaxation group. The conclusion drawn was that acupuncture is an effective form of treatment for IBS, particularly the pain and stress symptoms, and that its benefits exceed those of standard relaxation treatment.

Various studies differ on the degree of effectiveness, but most agree that acupuncture can be successful at relieving and preventing IBS symptoms.

[1] In a randomized, controlled trial of 27 patients with IBS diagnosed by their own criteria, the study treated the patients with acupuncture or relaxation sessions 3 times a week for a period of 2 weeks. A follow-up observation run was then performed for 4 weeks. (Lu B, Hu Y, Tenner S. A randomized controlled trial of acupuncture for irritable bowel syndrome. Program and abstracts of the 65th Annual Scientific Meeting of the American College of Gastroenterology; October 16-18, 2000, New York, NY.)

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