Acupuncture May Be Effective at Reducing Indigestion Symptoms

  • Researchers in China say acupuncture can help people who have a common form of recurring indigestion.
  • They report that study participants with postprandial distress syndrome (PDS) saw relief from symptoms after a 4-week course of acupuncture.
  • Experts say acupuncture works on this type of indigestion by manipulating the flow of energy through the digestive system.

A pin, rather than a pill, could help those living with the most common form of recurring indigestion.

Researchers in China say a 4-week course of acupuncture appears to relieve symptoms of postprandial distress syndrome (PDS), a form of indigestion characterized by early fullness after eating and upper abdominal bloating.

In Western medicine, PDS is usually treated with antacid medications, such as Tagamet, Pepcid, and Axid.

But researchers from the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine say acupuncture could be a safe and effective alternative.

In a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, 278 study participants with PDS were given either 12 sessions of acupuncture over 4 weeks or received “sham” acupuncture.

The study found that participants who received actual acupuncture were significantly more likely to report “improvement” or “extreme improvement” in their symptoms.

Acupuncture participants were also more likely to experience complete resolution of their symptoms.

The study by the numbers

Researchers studied the effect of acupuncture on three main symptoms of PDS: post-meal fullness, upper abdominal bloating, and early satiation.

They reported that 83 percent of participants in the actual acupuncture group reported a positive response from treatment versus 52 percent in the sham acupuncture group.

All three symptoms were eliminated among 28 percent of the acupuncture group compared with 18 percent of the control group.

Improvements were sustained for at least 12 weeks after the final acupuncture treatment, according to researchers, and there were no serious side effects among the study participants.

Dr. Kirsten Tillisch, a gastroenterologist and professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Healthline that the study is the latest research “showing effects of acupuncture on the GI tract, including successful treatment of constipation.”

“Most studies looking at GI symptoms have been small, though, so it is helpful to start seeing large clinical trials with randomization and a control group,” she said. “It would be even better to see a comparison to usual medical care as well.”

How acupuncture works

Jamie Bacharach, DiplAc, a medical acupuncturist at Acupuncture Jerusalem, told Healthline that gastrointestinal issues trail only pain among the reasons that her clients seek acupuncture.

“A lot of people come in with similar symptoms” of PDS, she said. “Western medicine often doesn’t do well with these conditions.”

According to Bacharach, acupuncture “manipulates the flow of energy along the meridians of the body and get it moving in the direction it is supposed to be going.”

Just as gastrointestinal disorders may be seen as problems with the movement of food through the stomach and intestines, she says, acupuncture seeks to address the “counterflow” of energy through the body.

“In Chinese medicine, stomach energy needs to move downward through the digestive tract,” said Tsao-Lin Moy, LAc, an expert in alternative and Chinese medicine and founder of Integrative Healing Arts in New York. “If there is something moving upward, then the qi (life energy) is rebelling. It needs to be balanced.”

“The mechanisms by which acupuncture works are not completely clear and are likely multifactorial. There is evidence that it acts on the autonomic nervous system, in this case the vagus nerve, and this may alter stomach motility and relaxation,” Tillisch said.

“Acupuncture also likely has effects on pain processing at both central and peripheral levels,” she said. “Finally, there is a high placebo response to acupuncture, and even in a controlled trial, the subtle differences in how the needles were placed and manipulated could have biased the response somewhat.”

Acupuncturists may treat conditions like PDS by inserting needles far from the source of the problem.

“There are a couple of acupuncture points on the outer calf below the knee that are really great for digestive issues, and on the inner wrist for abdominal fullness,” Bacharach said.

Other practitioners, however, “would prefer to go straight to the stomach,” Bacharach said.

Past studies — some from this same group of researchers — have also found promising results using acupuncture to treat indigestion.

The American College of Physicians noted in a statement within this week’s study that the findings were particularly significant because of its size and structure.

Other recent research has found that treating the digestive disorder with turmeric yielded similar results to treatment with simethicone, the main active ingredient in drugs such as Alka-Seltzer Anti-Gas and Mylanta Gas Maximum Strength.

Tillisch says PDS can lead people to avoid meals, restrict their diets, and even lose weight unintentionally.

“The cause is not clear, but it appears to be related to a disturbance in the brain-gut axis, possibly related to the way that the stomach moves in response to food,” she said. “Most commonly, people are placed on a medication to reduce acid, like a proton pump inhibitor, to see if this is effective.”

“Others may use herbal treatments like enteric-coated peppermint oil or other herb combinations. Others may respond to dietary interventions, antidepressants that alter pain-processing pathways, or use mind-body interventions, which like acupuncture target the autonomic nervous system and pain processing in the brain,” Tillisch said.

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