Acupuncture for Inflammatory Bowel Disease (including Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis)
Ulcerative colitis (UC) and Crohn’s disease are both forms of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD— not to be confused with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which is a different condition) in which parts of the digestive tract have become inflamed. In UC it is the large intestine which is affected, possibly with the formation of ulcers on the intestinal lining, whereas Crohn’s usually affects the small intestine, although it can be found in any part of the tract from the gullet to the anus. Both manifest with some or all of the following symptoms:
Diarrhoea, perhaps with some blood or mucus, and with increased frequency of passing
Symptoms can come and go somewhat unpredictably, and can range from being a minor inconvenience to being distressingly debilitating. Conventional treatment involves pharmaceutical drugs to relieve and prevent symptoms, and in some cases surgery.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease and TCM
The purpose of the digestive system is to transform the food we eat into the nutrients we need, and to expel those aspects of the food we cannot use. In order to do this, the Qi of the digestive system needs to be both abundant and smooth flowing; if it is deficient, our body struggles to process the food effectively, and if it is not flowing smoothly, the system gets ‘clogged up’.
Much of modern life, unfortunately, can affect the digestive Qi in these ways. For instance, eating hurriedly or eating whilst doing something else can, over time, deplete the Qi. Chinese medicine also sees an important connection between intellectual activity and digestion (it is no coincidence that we talk about ‘digesting information’ or ‘food for thought’), so that excessive thinking, and especially cramming the brain with information, can have a negative impact on the digestive Qi. Worry can also have a similar effect. And of course eating the ‘wrong’ kind of food does not help – although what is ‘wrong’ in this context varies from one person to another. For example, whilst for some people a lot of salad and fruit may be a healthy option, someone whose digestion is weak may be a lot better off with warming soups and stews rather than a preponderance of cold food.
Likewise, anxiety, frustration and emotional repression can impair the smooth flow of Qi and interfere with the movement which is crucial to the functioning of the digestive tract.
Whilst these two factors of deficient digestive Qi and a lack of smooth flow are likely to be major factors with most sufferers from IBD, treatment in TCM begins with a detailed consultation in which the therapist gradually comes to understand in more detail how the digestive system is impaired, and also how this relates to the health of the other organ systems and the individual in general – the TCM approach to health is holistic and needs to see the symptoms of IBD within the context of the person and their life as a whole.
Once this is achieved, we can proceed with a treatment plan tailored to the particular needs of the patient, which will involve acupuncture and perhaps herbal therapy as well as some of the other modalities mentioned above.
Is Acupuncture Helpful in the treatment of Inflammatory Bowel Disease?
A systematic review of trials of acupuncture for gastrointestinal diseases identified two robustly designed randomised controlled trials for Crohn’s and one for UC— both of which showed significant improvements both in general quality of life and of symptoms such as diarrhoea and abdominal pain. The Crohn’s trial also showed a significant decrease in al-acid glycoprotein, a marker of bowel inflammation.
Schneider A. et al Acupuncture treatment in gastrointestinal diseases: a systematic review. World J Gastroenterol. 2007 Jul 7;13(25):3417-24).