Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) describes a collection of symptoms, commonly including chronic abdominal pain, bloating, flatulence and altered bowel habits. It is a functional disorder of the intestines, occurring in the absence of visible structural abnormality.
IBS affects up to 22% of people in the UK and is the most common functional digestive disorder seen by GPs. Women are 2-3 times more likely to develop IBS, and often suffer more symptoms during their periods. The condition often begins in adolescence or early adulthood. Predisposing factors may include a low-fibre diet, emotional stress, use of laxatives or a bout of infectious diarrhoea. It is typically a chronic, recurrent disorder, associated with substantial health, social and economic costs. Pain and impairment from IBS can lead to frequent doctor visits, hospitalizations and workplace absenteeism, and can cause depression.
The cause of IBS is unclear, but it appears that sensory nerves in the bowel are hypersensitive in people with IBS and may overreact when the bowel wall stretches. Intestinal muscles can be hypo- or hyperactive, causing pain, cramping, flatulence, sudden bouts of diarrhea, and/or constipation. The symptoms are usually triggered by stress or eating. Systematic reviews of the research literature suggest that conventional medications are of limited benefit in IBS.
How acupuncture can help
Research has shown that acupuncture treatment may benefit IBS symptoms, regulating the motility of the digestive tract.
Raising the sensory threshold of the gut. Various possible mechanisms have been identified, involving spinal nerves and NMDA receptors and a range of neurotransmitters.
Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, which can stimulate colon spasms, resulting in abdominal discomfort. In people with IBS, the colon can be oversensitive to the smallest amount of conflict or stress. Acupuncture activates the opposing parasympathetic nervous system, which initiates the relaxation or ‘rest and digest’ response. The distress provoked by IBS symptoms can lead to a vicious cycle of anxiety-pain-anxiety, while the embarrassing nature of the condition can lead to feelings of depression. Acupuncture can alter the brain’s mood chemistry, increases production of serotonin and endorphins, helping to combat these negative affective states.
Acupuncture can be safely and effectively combined with Western biomedicine, and other treatments such as relaxation exercises, herbal medicine and psychotherapy. In addition to offering acupuncture and related therapies, acupuncturists will often make suggestions as to dietary and other lifestyle changes that may be helpful in combating IBS symptoms. Working with a supportive therapist can also help people suffering from IBS to change their negative health beliefs and improve their coping mechanisms, which can have a positive influence on both mood and symptoms.