Acupuncture With a Zap May Ease Constipation

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Acupuncture to the abdomen, boosted by an electric current, helped relieve severe constipation, a new study found.

Chinese researchers studied 1,075 patients with severe functional constipation, which means they were unable to have a complete bowel movement more than twice a week. The study subjects all reported a number of unpleasant symptoms, including hard stools, a sensation of incomplete evacuation and often needing to strain when going to the bathroom. They were randomly assigned to receive either a form of acupuncture or a sham procedure, according to the report published today in Annals of Internal Medicine.

For the treatment group, the researchers used electro-acupuncture, in which low-voltage currents are passed through acupuncture needles. Trained acupuncturists inserted needles at six acupuncture points in the abdomen deep enough to puncture the muscle layer of the abdominal wall, and then passed current through attached wires for 30 minutes. The control group received shallow needles at nonacupuncture points, with electrical wires attached in the same way, but with no current passing through them. The procedures were repeated in 28 sessions over eight weeks.

Participants in both groups were allowed to use a laxative every three days if needed, and they recorded their use in diaries.

During the eight weeks of treatment, 31.3 percent of people in the treatment group showed improvement (measured by three or more bowel movements per week without the need for laxatives) compared with just 12.1 percent in the control group who improved. Over the 12 weeks of follow-up, 37.7 percent of the treatment group reported similar levels of improvement, compared to 14.1 percent of the patients in the control group.

The authors acknowledge that the acupuncture treatment could not be fully blinded, possibly influencing the researchers’ expectations. While it’s not known exactly why acupuncture may have made a difference, one theory is that the treatment stimulates the muscles along the gastrointestinal tract.

The researchers noted that more study is needed. “Though the safety of acupuncture is good, we do not suggest it as a first-line treatment,” said the lead author, Dr. Marie Jia Liu of the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences. “The people in this study had severe constipation.”