Acupuncture for Diarrhoea
Diarrhoea is defined as the passing of watery stools more than three times a day. Most people will be familiar with acute diarrhoea, which is usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection due to eating contaminated food, and which comes on suddenly and lasts for a week or so.
Chronic diarrhoea, which lasts longer than two weeks, can be connected with diseases such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome or Crohn’s disease (please see our separate leaflets on these conditions). One of the problems caused by diarrhoea, especially in children or the elderly, is dehydration, and it is important to drink lots of fluids when suffering from diarrhoea.
Diarrhoea and TCM
The TCM approach to health is a holistic one, and so a problem like diarrhoea is seen within the context of the individual as a whole, and treatment is tailored to that individual.
i) Acute Diarrhoea
Diarrhoea which comes on all of a sudden will usually be due to what in TCM is called an External Pathogen which invades the digestive system. This Pathogen is a form of external Qi which irritates and undermines the body’s own Qi and in some ways resembles the Western medical notion of bacterial or viral infection. However, the TCM notion is somewhat wider; for example in TCM it is considered that diarrhoea may arise from an invasion of a Cold or Damp pathogen if our bodies are exposed to cold and/or wet weather.
Invasion by such a pathogen will probably result in other symptoms such as headache, fever, vomiting or abdominal pain. The main focus in TCM treatment of such a case is to identify the nature of the pathogen and expel it, using acupuncture and perhaps herbal therapy. On top of this it will be important to strengthen that aspect of our Qi which is employed in fending off and expelling invading pathogens. In patients who suffer repeated bouts of acute diarrhoea, it may be that this defensive Qi is weak; in this case treatment will aim to ascertain why this is the case and rectify the problem.
ii) Chronic Diarrhoea
As indicated above, chronic diarrhoea in the sense of recurrent bouts may involve repeated invasions of an external pathogen, or it may be that a pathogen has, as it were, taken up residence in the digestive tract. If this is the case, the pathogen needs to be expelled, again using acupuncture and maybe herbal therapy.
Alternatively, chronic diarrhoea may signal a weakness in the body’s Qi. For example, one of the functions of the Qi of the digestive system in TCM is to hold and support. If this Qi is weakened, as it can be through overwork or poor eating habits for example, one consequence may be loose stools or diarrhoea because the Qi is too feeble to hold and contain the stools. This may be exacerbated if the Yang Qi (the warming and invigorating Qi at the root of our being) is depleted; in this case we feel the cold very easily, tire easily and lack motivation, and perhaps have low backache.
Be that as it may, in all cases of chronic diarrhoea treatment will be based on a coherent understanding of the imbalances within the body’s Qi, whether this involves strengthening the Qi , warming the Yang Qi, or expelling pathogens. Each person is unique and thus each person’s treatment will be tailored to their particular imbalances. Acupuncture, eating food appropriate to the person, and perhaps herbal therapy will be used to restore internal harmony and reduce symptoms.
Is Acupuncture Helpful in the treatment of Diarrhoea?
The World Health Organisation1 lists acupuncture as a treatment of proven effectiveness for the treatment of acute bacillary dysentery (severe diarrhoea caused by bacterial infection); Chinese studies 2,3 show average recovery times in this case as 3-4 days which compares favourably with conventional drug treatment. An Italian study of acupuncture treatment of faecal incontinence demonstrated a marked improvement over a ten week period with incontinence scores changing from 10 at the beginning of the study to 0 after 10 weeks. There has also been a significant amount of research into the use of Chinese medicine to treat HIV related diarrhoea; for example one study4 of Chinese herbal medicine showed sustained improvement in the number of daily bowel movements in these patients.
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1 WHO (2002): Review and Analysis of Reports of Controlled Clinical Trials
2 Gao, G (1982) Clinical observation on the effect of 192 cases of acute bacillary dysentery treated by acupuncture. Chinese Acupuncture and Moxibustion (Zhongguo Zhenjiu). 1982 Aug; 2(4): 6-7
3 Zhang T. (1982) Acupuncture treatment for acute bacillary dysentery and some experimental observations Chinese Acupuncture and Moxibustion (Zhongguo Zhenjiu). 1982; 2(3): 14-17
4 Cohen M et al (2000) Use of a Chinese herbal medicine for treatment of HIV-associated pathogen-negative diarrhoea Int Conf AIDS 2000 July 9-14:13