Acupuncture and Massage as Potential Treatments for IBS

The summer after I graduated from college, my IBS began to flare again in such a way that it interfered with my life 24/7. It got to a point where I never was no longer experiencing any regularity and was instead constantly fluctuating between diarrhea and constipation.

Specifically, I literally would not be able to use a bathroom for two or sometimes even three days in a row, and would wobble around my apartment feeling bloated and extremely uncomfortable. Then after days of this when the pressure would reach a certain peak, I’d suddenly feel very sick and have to be near a bathroom for the next few hours while my guts emptied themselves out. This process would then repeat itself again, so that the only reprieve I got were the few short hours or half a day between getting sick and getting bloated again. This went on for over eight weeks and I worried that this was my new norm. Finally, fall arrived. I moved into a new place and got a new job and had a new stream of income. With this, I decided out of desperation to visit a very highly esteemed acupuncturist in my town.

Acupuncture

Up until this point, I had never received acupuncture before but was very nervous about the prospect of being pricked with dozens of needles. The acupuncturist put me at ease and the needles were so hair-thin, I barely felt them as they slipped into my skin. Before the treatment, he spent nearly forty minutes going over my complete medical history and that of my immediate family. He checked my tongue and pulse. As I lay on the table I felt a sudden settling of tension in my belly and low back. The acupuncturist was also an herbalist and sent me home with a tincture to add to boiling water and have as a tea every evening before dinner. It didn’t taste great, but wasn’t horrendous either.

Miraculously, my IBS flare immediately dissipated and I became regular again. Overall, I felt much healthier than I had in many months. Of course, this may have also had something to do with my circumstances changing to those that were less stressful (with a better living and work situation) and the fact that I now had resources to buy and cook more nutritious meals. I also began to phase coffee out of my life around this time as well. Finally, the cooler weather of autumn in upstate New York was taking hold. I had always noticed very hot and humid weather tends to flare all my health issues–including IBS–while cooler, more comfortable weather soothes my system. However, I can’t deny the acupuncture seemed to not only aid, but also expedite, the healing process. Unfortunately, it was very expensive (just under $100 per session, and this was 15 years ago), so I could only afford to see him once more before I moved out of the state. Nonetheless, that seemed to be enough to really help get my body back in balance.

Massage

When I moved to Massachusetts shortly after the new year, my IBS began to flare again. Again, this likely was also due to the fact that my life again was in flux and my job prospects up in the air. Moving itself can be hard on a body, especially one as fragile as mine. The weather also had shifted again, from cool to freezing cold and while cold doesn’t instigate flares as much as heat, both weather extremes seem to impact me. I found an acupuncturist, but for some reason as much as I liked her, her treatments didn’t seem to reap the same benefits as the previous person I had visited. I didn’t know what to do. Finally, I came across an ad in a newspaper for a woman who did deep tissue massage and who offered sliding scale treatments based on income. I booked my first appointment for her next open slot. As with the acupuncturist in New York, my improvement after seeing her was immediate and lasted weeks. Since she was much more affordable than the acupuncturist, I booked monthly appointments.

Whether or not acupuncture or massage are effective treatments for IBS (or a host of other ailments) is still up for debate. This is at least partially due to the fact that research on these as treatments have been lacking. But what studies have been conducted have at least partially heartening results. For instance, a meta-analysis published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology concluded that acupuncture exhibited “statistically significant control” for all three types of IBS: IBS-D, IBS-C, and IBS-A (when one alternates between constipation and diarrhea).1,2 Admittedly though, other studies indicate no statistically significant changes for those treated with acupuncture.3 One study showed that IBS symptoms was much more improved in those patients that had received both acupuncture and massage as treatments together.4 While I cannot make guesses for others, I have no doubt both treatments benefited my IBS, but sometimes the extent of those benefits varied on who the practitioner was, the kind of method used, and other factors in my life at the time (like diet, stress, weather).

The downside is both massage therapy and acupuncture can be quite expensive and often not covered by health insurance. And since it can be a gamble to try in terms of whether they will work for you, it can be hard to justify the expense. I am fortunate that my current health insurance covers acupuncture for up to 20 visits per year. While massage isn’t covered, physical therapy is and more physical therapists are trained in and incorporating at least some light massage in their treatments. Luckily, more insurances seem to be covering these practices than they did even a decade ago. Also, some practitioners offer sliding scale rates or discounts to those with lower incomes or who are members of certain organizations. Massage schools also tend to have much lower rates for students learning the trade. So, there are ways to try out these treatments without breaking bank.

While they are not miracle cures, they are yet another set of tools that can be put into the toolbox for gaining and maintaining control over one’s IBS.

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