Acupuncture for Ulcerative Colitis: Can it Help?

Ulcerative Colitis & Acupuncture:

Ulcerative colitis is a type of inflammatory bowel disease that causes inflammation, irritation, and ulcers in the lining of the colon or large intestine. It is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system starts assuming that the food, good gut bacteria, and the cells lining the colon are foreign intruders and thereby has to be killed off. So the white blood cells that are responsible for actually protecting you start attacking the lining of the large intestine instead. This is what causes the inflammation and ulcers.

Ulcerative colitis is often confused with other conditions that have similar symptoms, such as Crohn’s disease and IBS.(1)

There is no cure for ulcerative colitis, and people go through their lives alternating between periods of flare-ups (a period marked by aggravated symptoms) and remission (during which there are no symptoms). You will work together with your doctor to put a treatment plan in place, which will decrease the severity of your symptoms. This will also bring about the periods of remissions when you will experience little to no symptoms.

Traditional medication for treating ulcerative colitis includes immunosuppressant drugs and anti-inflammatory drugs, which work to stop the body’s inflammatory responses. Nevertheless, even if medication improves your symptoms and your overall quality of life, ulcerative colitis is still a lifelong condition, and you will find that the episodes of bloody stools, diarrhea, and intense stomach pain will keep returning from time to time.

If your doctor finds that medication is not able to keep your body in prolonged remission, then alternative or complementary therapies can also be explored. One such option is acupuncture.

Acupuncture is an integral part of traditional Chinese medicine and involves inserting or pricking tiny needles into specific points on the body at various depths.(2) It is a 2,000-year-old practice that has become particularly popular around the world in recent years. Acupuncture is used to reduce tension in the body and also treat stress and pain caused by a variety of conditions, including ulcerative colitis.

The ultimate goal of acupuncture is to restore the energy flow throughout the body. The premise behind acupuncture is that if the flow of energy in the body gets disrupted, it leads to different diseases. Once this energy imbalance is corrected, it stimulates healing, promotes relaxation, and also relieves pain.

Acupuncture is today used for treating a wide variety of conditions, including fibromyalgia, back pain, depression, and arthritis. It is also a standard therapy for soothing labor pain and menstrual cramps.

Acupuncture is an excellent option for patients with ulcerative colitis to use in combination with their traditional treatment plan.

Read on to find out why and if acupuncture can really help.

Acupuncture for Ulcerative Colitis: Can it Help?

Acupuncture for Ulcerative Colitis: Can it Help?

Acupuncture can prove to be an effective therapy for the condition of ulcerative colitis because acupuncture helps enhance or activate the body’s natural painkillers. This allows your body to regulate inflammation, which decreases the disease activity and also reduces the pain associated with ulcerative colitis.

Some of the local benefits of acupuncture have been confirmed in many studies. It is known that the body’s cells change shape when the needles are inserted, and they also release a certain type of chemical in response. There are also changes in blood flow to the brain that have been picked up on fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans after acupuncture treatments.

There have been many studies that support the effectiveness of acupuncture in many conditions involving chronic pain. Acupuncture has especially shown to help in the treatment of migraine headache, lower back, and knee pain.

It is important to note here, though, that there is no reliable evidence to support the effectiveness of acupuncture for ulcerative colitis.

According to research by the Mayo Clinic, there has only been one clinical trial so far that has actually tested the benefits of using acupuncture for treating ulcerative colitis. At the same time, a 2016 review carried out by the Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine in China(3), analyzed over 63 studies between the time period 1995 and 2015 that looked at the effectiveness of acupuncture for the treatment of ulcerative colitis. However, it was observed that there is a massive variation in the results of these studies.

Some of these studies revolved around acupuncture with moxibustion (a type of heat therapy) in combination with drug therapy. The other studies looked at the use of acupuncture and moxibustion therapy alone.(4) Overall, the topics of research of these studies were also far too varied to allow the reviewing team to draw any solid conclusion.

Meanwhile, in a Swedish study which was published on November 2016 in the European Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology and was carried out by the Swedish Organization for the study of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (SOIBD), it was found that just 21 out of 147 participants with ulcerative colitis reported undergoing acupuncture. (5) Most of them reported that it helped them in the following way:

  • Relieving pain
  • Improving the symptoms of ulcerative colitis
  • Increasing their overall well-being

However, more research is still needed to determine whether acupuncture alone can improve bowel inflammation, thus providing relief from the symptoms of ulcerative colitis.

As of now, there are no guarantees that acupuncture can help you with your condition. However, it has been observed that acupuncture is a safe procedure and it does offer other health benefits including a reduction in pain, fatigue, and even diarrhea – all symptoms that are typically associated with ulcerative colitis.

What to Expect in an Acupuncture Session for Ulcerative Colitis?

If you want to give acupuncture a try for your ulcerative colitis, then you should, first of all, find a certified acupuncturist. You can also ask your doctor or gastroenterologist for a recommendation or find a certified provider in your area through an online search.

When you go for your initial consultation, your acupuncturist will inquire about your symptoms, your overall condition, and for how long you have had the disease. Based on this information you provide, they will estimate the number of sessions you will need every week. They will also calculate the number of overall treatments you will be needing. The total number varies from person to person and depends on the severity of your symptoms and your overall condition. It is usually considered normal to undergo six to eight treatments.

Once the treatment begins, you will be made to lie down on an examination table and remain completely still. Once you are in a relaxed state, your acupuncturist will start inserting the needles into your skin at different points and at different depths. The needles can cause a little discomfort, though you are likely to only feel a slight sting of pain as your acupuncturist manipulates the needle to reach the necessary depth. You might also feel different sensations if the acupuncturist sends mild electrical pulses through the needles or heats the needles.

The number of needs that are inserted also varies. They can range from 5 to even 20 needles. These needles will be kept in place for at least 15 to 20 minutes.

After you have completed the recommended treatments as advised by your acupuncturist, you should track your symptoms of ulcerative colitis to look for any improvement. If acupuncture has helped your symptoms, then you can schedule further appointments for undergoing maintenance therapy, but if you do not find any improvement in your symptoms, then acupuncture might not be the correct procedure for you.

Are There Any Side Effects of Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is known to be more or less a safe procedure, but it might not be correct for everyone.

Some of the possible side effects of acupuncture can include bruising, soreness, and minor bleeding at the site where the needles were inserted. However, if you are getting it done from a well-trained, experienced, and certified acupuncturist, these side effects are highly unlikely to occur. These professional acupuncturists are very well aware of the importance of using single-use and disposable needles, and they work so swiftly that you will hardly come to realize when the needles are being inserted.

Many people also report feeling wiped out and tired after an acupuncture session, while others report experiencing an increase in their energy levels. While feeling tired after acupuncture is nothing to be concerned about, but do take it as a warning sign that your body wants you to rest.

This therapy is also not right for those who have a bleeding disorder or who are taking blood-thinners. These factors are likely to increase your risk of bleeding, so it is better to speak with the acupuncturist first before going ahead with the procedure.

You also need to avoid acupuncture if you have a pacemaker installed. Electrical pulses that are sometimes sent through the acupuncture needles can interfere with your pacemaker creating complications.

You also should avoid acupuncture if you are pregnant. Acupuncture is known to stimulate premature labor and delivery in pregnant women.

There have also been some reports of the acupuncture needles being left in after the treatment, but this is very rare and unlikely to happen if you go to a reliable practitioner.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, if you do not have a fear of needles and any other health complications, then acupuncture is worth considering for ulcerative colitis. While more research still needs to be carried out to confirm the effectiveness of acupuncture for ulcerative colitis, but since acupuncture is a generally safe therapy, it is definitely worth a try. For all you know, you might just experience relief in your symptoms.

Before beginning acupuncture treatments, though, it is essential to discuss the same with your doctor and acupuncturist. Also ensure that you choose an acupuncturist who is experienced, certified, and has proper training. This will reduce the risk of any complications. If possible, do some research and find out a practitioner who has experience in treating patients living with ulcerative colitis.

Keep in mind that acupuncture should not be used in place of standard care for ulcerative colitis. Avoiding or delaying the standard care for ulcerative colitis can have serious consequences for your health.

References:  

  1. Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation. (2019). What is Ulcerative Colitis? | Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation. [online] Available at: https://www.crohnscolitisfoundation.org/what-is-ulcerative-colitis [Accessed 30 Aug. 2019].
  2. Taking Charge of Your Health & Wellbeing. (2019). What Is Acupuncture? | Taking Charge of Your Health & Wellbeing. [online] Available at: https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/what-is-acupuncture [Accessed 30 Aug. 2019].
  3. Ji, J., Huang, Y., Wang, X.F., Ma, Z., Wu, H.G., Im, H., Liu, H.R., Wu, L.Y. and Li, J., 2016. Review of clinical studies of the treatment of ulcerative colitis using acupuncture and moxibustion. Gastroenterology research and practice, 2016.
  4. Sciencebasedmedicine.org. (2019). Moxibustion. [online] Available at: https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/moxibustion/ [Accessed 30 Aug. 2019].
  5. Oxelmark, L., Lindberg, A., Löfberg, R., Sternby, B., Eriksson, A., Almer, S., Befrits, R., Fossum, B., Karlén, P., Broström, O. and Tysk, C., 2016. Use of complementary and alternative medicine in Swedish patients with inflammatory bowel disease: a controlled study. European journal of gastroenterology & hepatology, 28(11), p.1320.

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