Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: March 2023

Acupuncture is a type of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It is also a type of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). TCM has been around for centuries.1

Today, acupuncture is often used in the United States alongside traditional drugs for different medical issues. It is thought to reduce pain, improve wellness, and alleviate stress.1

How does acupuncture work?

Acupuncture involves the use of tiny needles. These needles are inserted into the skin at specific points. The goal is to realign a person’s energy flow or life force. This flow is known as qi or chi (pronounced "chee").1

Chi is thought to flow through different pathways in the body, known as meridians. Placing the needles in strategic locations along meridians is thought to realign a person’s chi and improve wellness or symptoms.1

The needles are very thin and are not placed deep into the skin. Most people feel only a mild discomfort. Anywhere from 5 to 20 or more needles are used. The needles usually stay in place for 10 to 20 minutes.1

Healthcare experts in Western countries like the United States have increased their understanding of acupuncture in recent years. In recent years, there has been more research on acupuncture for different health issues. Western theories suggest the needles stimulate nerves or muscles that increase the body’s natural pain-fighting abilities.1

Acupuncture is used for a variety of reasons. Most commonly, it is used for pain relief. Several examples include:1

  • Tooth pain
  • Headaches
  • Arthritis
  • Menstrual cramps
  • Labor pains
  • Back pain

Acupuncture may also be used to improve the side effects of chemotherapy.1

Acupuncture and IBS

Some people with IBS use acupuncture to reduce stress and pain. With acupuncture, it may be possible to decrease some of the symptoms of IBS. However, research on this is mixed. Overall, several studies have found that acupuncture seems to improve symptoms and quality of life compared to common drugs, herbs, or supplements used to treat IBS.2-5

However, the same results can often be recreated with sham acupuncture. This involves undergoing a similar process as regular acupuncture. But in sham acupuncture, the needles are not inserted all the way or are not inserted in the precise locations. This could suggest it is the process itself that is beneficial rather than any positive effects of the needles when left in place. Some call this a placebo effect.3,6

Even with mixed research results, acupuncture might help those with IBS. While many studies have shown that acupuncture can have a greater impact than some medicines, the placebo effect can affect study results.3

Acupuncture side effects

While acupuncture is relatively safe, there are still some risks. The needles are thin, but they still can cause discomfort that can last for several days. Since acupuncture uses disposable needles, the risk of infection is low.1

Things to know about acupuncture

Some people have an increased chance of complications from acupuncture and should talk with their doctor before getting a treatment. This includes those who:1

  • Have certain bleeding disorders
  • Take certain drugs that affect bleeding
  • Have a pacemaker, especially if electrical pulses are used during acupuncture
  • Are pregnant, as acupuncture can stimulate labor

Due to some of the potential risks, acupuncture should only be performed by a trained expert. If you are interested in acupuncture, talk with your doctor. They may know of experienced acupuncturists in your area. You can always ask the person performing acupuncture where they were trained and what kind of experience they have as well. Many states require specific training certifications that you can ask about.1

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