While acupuncture (AC) successfully relieves pain in many areas of the body, the clinical evidence for its use in other conditions is mixed. This is partly due to the nature of AC, which makes it challenging to conduct randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies, which is the gold standard for evidence-based research. However, the recent development of placebo needles could make such studies more likely in the near future.1

In an extensive review of literature, published in 2006, regarding treatment of gastrointestinal (GI) conditions with AC ranging as far back as 1913, the author concludes that various AC points may be beneficial in treating patients with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and functional dyspepsia. Regarding treatment for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), the same review states that there is not enough clinical evidence and few prospective, well-randomized clinical studies to support the effectiveness of AC on IBS. However, they did report some success in treating two of the main IBS symptoms; constipation and diarrhea.2 In a small pilot study involving only seven patients with IBS, researchers showed significant improvements in general well-being and bloating following AC treatment, and suggested further research is necessary.3 However, another small study involving 43 irritable bowel syndrome patients in Germany could not elicit a positive treatment response with AC.4

In a systematic review of 18 studies of AC for GI conditions, health related quality of life improved after both real and sham (pretend) AC, without significant group differences. In contrast, real AC was significantly superior to sham AC with regard to disease activity in the Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis trials; although the reviewers caution that most studies reviewed had methodological flaws.5

While groups such as The National Council Against Health Fraud continue to actively oppose AC treatment6, the US National Institutes of Health suggests several ailments benefit from AC treatments, but none is a digestive condition. They do propose, however, that further research is likely to uncover other areas where AC could be useful7

First published in the Inside Tract® newsletter issue 163 – September/October 2007
1. Streitberger K, et al. Introducing a placebo needle into acupuncture research. Lancet.1998;352:364-65
2. Takahashi T. Acupuncture for functional gastrointestinal disorders. Journal of Gastroenterology. 2006;41:408-417.
3. Chan J, et al. The role of acupuncture in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome: a pilot study. Hepatogastroenterology. 1997;44(17):1328-1330.
4. Schneider A, et al. Acupuncture treatment in irritable bowel syndrome. Gut. 2006;55:649-654.
5. Schneider A, et al. Acupuncture treatment in gastrointestinal diseases: A systematic review. World Journal of Gastroenterology. 2007;13(25):3417-3424.
6. www.ncahf.org/pp/acu.html retrieved August 22, 2007
7. National Institutes of Health. National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Get The Facts: Acupuncture. Available at: http://nccam.nih.gov/health/acupuncture/ retrieved August 22, 2007.