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Acupuncture for Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) describes a collection of symptoms, commonly including chronic abdominal pain, bloating, flatulence and altered bowel habits. It is a functional disorder of the intestines, occurring in the absence of visible structural abnormality. IBS is a much used term now for a whole variety of digestive disorders. It seems that it is often given as a diagnosis when nothing else can be found.

Whenever a new patient contacts me for treatment for IBS some of the key questions I ask are listed below.

  • Are symptoms worse for stress?

  • Are symptoms worse after eating particular things? 

  • Do you have alternating diarrhoea and constipation? 

  • Are symptoms worse for emotional turmoil? 

  • Do you have loose stools or hard pebble-like stools? 

  • Do you have constipation?

  • Do you have bloating after eating?

  • Do you have cramping in abdomen?

  • Does alcohol make it worse?

  • Does certain foods trigger it off?

These questions are asked along with the standard questioning and investigation. One of the great strengths of acupuncture is that it treats each person as an individual and therefore can refine each case according to the presenting symptoms of each person. It is for this reason that acupuncture can be helpful when treating IBS.

Research has shown that acupuncture treatment may benefit IBS symptoms by:

Providing pain relief (Pomeranz 1987).Regulating the motility of the digestive tract (Yin 2010, Chen 2008).Raising the sensory threshold of the gut. Various possible mechanisms have been identified, involving spinal nerves and NMDA receptors and a range of neurotransmitters (Xu 2009, Ma 2009, Tian 2008, Tian 2006, Xing 2004). A lowered threshold to bowel pain and distention are hallmarks of IBS.Increasing parasympathetic tone (Schneider 2007b). Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, which can stimulate colon spasms, resulting in abdominal discomfort. In people with IBS, the colon can be oversensitive to the smallest amount of conflict or stress.

Acupuncture activates the opposing parasympathetic nervous system, which initiates the relaxation or ‘rest and digest’ response.Reducing anxiety and depression (Samuels 2008). The distress provoked by IBS symptoms can lead to a vicious cycle of anxiety-pain-anxiety, while the embarrassing nature of the condition can lead to feelings of depression. Acupuncture can alter the brain’s mood chemistry, increases production of serotonin and endorphins (Han 2004), helping to combat these negative affective states.

In addition to offering acupuncture and related therapies, acupuncturists will often make suggestions as to dietary and other lifestyle changes that may be helpful in combating IBS symptoms. Personally I would encourage every patient to start doing some form of exercise as this has been shown to help.  Also to cut out caffeine, reduce alcohol intake and increase the intake of fibre. There are some great resources on the internet with all kinds of help and advice.

Clinical Experience

In my experience acupuncture helps to return the bodies nervous system to its normal function. Patients often report that they feel less stressed and more themselves.  To be specific, the parasympathetic system is responsible for stimulation of "rest-and-digest" activities that occur when the body is at rest, salivation, lacrimation (tears), urination, digestion, and defecation. Its action is described as being complementary to that of one of the other main branches of the ANS, the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for stimulating activities associated with the fight-or-flight response.

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) turns on the fight or flight response. In contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) promotes the relaxation response. By restoring the parasympathetic nervous system to normal this regulates many of the bodies internal functions such as bowel function. In the patients that I have treated for IBS all reported that they felt calmer as a result of treatment as well as a reduction in symptoms.

To summarise the resulting biochemical changes encourage the process of homeostasis, activating the body's self-regulating systems, thus stimulating its natural healing abilities and promoting physical and emotional wellbeing essentially helping the body to heal itself.

Acupuncture treatment is usually weekly to begin with over a couple of months and progress is monitored over that period.

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