Acupuncture is the use of thin needles inserted through the skin at strategic points on the body. It is a key component of traditional Chinese medicine and is most often used to treat pain.1 Many patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) seek relief from their symptoms with acupuncture. Acupuncture has been studied as a treatment for IBS in clinical trials, and some trials have demonstrated that patients may benefit from acupuncture and get relief from their symptoms. 2

Traditional Chinese medicine explains acupuncture as a tool to balance the energy flow or life force, known as qi or chi (pronounced “chee”). In Chinese medicine, this life force energy flows through the body in meridians or pathways. By using needles at specific points on these meridians, acupuncturists believe it will re-balance the body’s natural energy flow and relieve symptoms of disease.1

IBS can be challenging to treat – not all patients have the same symptoms or triggers, and the medications that are available may not provide relief for every patient. Acupuncture is a non-drug therapy, and as such does not have the risk of side effects seen with pharmacological treatments. It is considered a safe treatment and several studies have demonstrated its effectiveness in treating symptoms such as abdominal pain and intestinal motility. It is important to find a reputable provider.2

Research on acupuncture

Recently, researchers conducted a meta-analysis that looked at the results from 17 randomized clinical trials on acupuncture for the treatment of IBS with a total of 1,806 participants. In five of the trials, acupuncture was compared to “sham acupuncture.” Because there may be a placebo effect – a positive benefit because the patient believes it will happen, not because of a true medicine or treatment – the sham acupuncture approach uses needles that are either not placed in appropriate places or do not penetrate the skin, or both.

Sham acupuncture is designed to be the placebo in clinical trials, so scientists can study true acupuncture in comparison. In the other 12 trials, acupuncture was compared to no treatment, non-Chinese medicine treatment (such as pharmacological medicine), and also studied as a complementary treatment to standard medical treatment. The results were as follows:

  • The results of the 5 trials that compared acupuncture to sham acupuncture showed no statistically significant difference between the two: both patient groups showed improvement in symptom severity (55 percent of acupuncture patients versus 49 percent of sham acupuncture patients) and in quality of life (17 percent of acupuncture patients versus 14 percent of sham acupuncture patients).
  • In the trials that compared acupuncture to pharmacological treatments for IBS, results showed that acupuncture provided a significant improvement in symptom severity. Eighty-four percent of patients who received acupuncture reported improvement in symptom severity compared to 63 percent of patients in the pharmacological treatment group.
  • Two studies compared acupuncture to probiotics, and the results demonstrated that there was no statistically significant difference between these treatments (76 percent of acupuncture patients improved versus 71 percent of probiotic patients).
  • Five of the clinical trials looked at acupuncture as a complementary treatment to another IBS treatment. Patients who received acupuncture and psychotherapy (counseling) were more likely (96 percent) to have improvements in the severity of their IBS symptoms compared to those who only received psychotherapy (82 percent). Similarly, acupuncture added to the standard medical care of patients with IBS also showed significant benefit (63 percent of acupuncture patients reported improvement versus 34 percent of those only receiving standard medical care).

Other treatment options

Every patient responds differently to each treatment. Managing symptoms of IBS can be challenging, and patients may need to try several approaches before determining what the best one or combination is for their symptoms. Other treatment options for patients include dietary changes, exercise, probiotics, fiber, medications, counseling, herbal remedies, hypnotherapy and biofeedback.

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Written by: Emily Downward | Last reviewed: September 2021