It is possible to effectively and safely combine acupuncture and IBS treatments including Western bio-medicine and a range of other treatments like, for instance, herbal medicines, relaxation exercises and psychotherapy. As well as offering acupuncture and other related therapies, acupuncturists often also make suggestions with regards to dietary and other changes in lifestyle that could be helpful in combating the symptoms of IBS. Working with supportive therapists can also help IBS sufferers to change negative health beliefs and improve their natural coping mechanisms, which in turn can have a positive impact on both symptoms and mood.
Acupuncture and IBS – The Benefits
According to the British Acupuncture Council, research suggests that acupuncture can be beneficial to IBS sufferers in several ways. The benefits of combining acupuncture and IBS treatments such as those named above include:
- Provision of pain relief (Pomeranz 1987)
- Regulation of digestive tract motility (Yin 2010, Chen 2008)
- Raising of the gut’s sensory threshold. Several possible mechanisms involving spinal nerves, NMDA receptors and a variety of neurotransmitters have been identified (Xu 2009, Ma 2009, Tian 2008, Tian 2006, Xing 2004). A lowered bowel pain threshold and distention are both hallmarks of IBS.
- Increase of the parasympathetic tone (Schneider 2007b). The sympathetic nervous system is activated by stress. This can cause abdominal discomfort by stimulating colon spasms. In IBS patients, the colon can sometimes be oversensitive to even the smallest amount of stress or conflict. Acupuncture serves to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn initiates the ‘rest and digest’ or relaxation response.
- Reduction of depression and anxiety (Samuels 2008). The distress IBS symptoms provoke can lead to vicious anxiety-pain-anxiety cycles, while the condition’s embarrassing nature can cause feelings of depression. Increasing serotonin and endorphin production, acupuncture can alter the mood chemistry of the brain (Han 2004), thereby helping to fight these adverse affective states.
Acupuncture and IBS – The Reality
Evidence consistently suggests that acupuncture improves general wellbeing and IBS symptoms (Lu 2000, Xing 2004, Schneider 2007b, Trujillo 2008, Reynolds 2008, Anastasi 2009). There are, nonetheless, arguments about how much of this effect is actually placebo-related (Forbes 2005, Lim 2006, Schneider 2007a, Lembo 2009). To date, there has been no satisfactory sham/placebo intervention for acupuncture, meaning this remains a matter for supposition. There are without doubt persuasive physiological explanations for the above-mentioned effects of acupuncture and it has the ability to promote mechanisms not noted with sham/placebo treatments (Schneider 2007b).
Acupuncture and IBS – Summary
Living with IBS can be incredibly debilitating and distressing. While acupuncture may not work for everyone, it certainly has the potential to ease at least some of the symptoms of this often chronic illness. This, of course, means it is worth trying to combine acupuncture and IBS treatments of a more mainstream nature.