Does acupuncture help constipation? This type of "needle therapy" has a long list of claimed benefits... constipation being one of them. But the questions is whether or not it 'actually' helps.
Constipation is a pain, no one wants to deal with it, especially in severe cases. It's characterized by reduced frequency of bowel movements, hard and clumpy stools, increased strain, pain and feeling as if you never completely emptied after a movement.
But how effective is acupuncture for treating this really? Surprisingly, it has been found to be fairly effective based on the studies out there performed on this topic. As you will see, many trials have had high numbers of success... but we'll get into all of this in a bit.
Acupuncture is commonly used as a treatment for...
...but, as said, the list of benefits is long. Others that are not so commonly thought include...
- Allergy relief
- Addiction treatment
- Headache and eye-strain relief
- Stroke rehab
- And of course... DIGESTIVE PROBLEMS like constipation
What exactly is acupuncture?
It's more than what meets the eye. While often being seen as just a way to alleviate pain by sticking needles in or around troubled areas, it is much more than that. This is just how it is often seen in the west.
However, acupuncture originated in the far east, China. Some sources say that the more modern form started some 2,500 years ago, and before that sharpened stones and bones were used dating back to around 6,000 BC.
In eastern practice there is more of a focus in energy flow throughout the body. Many believe that illnesses and disorders come from unbalanced energy flow and that acupuncture can fix this. That said, there isn't really any cold hard science to back up these claims.
Just a Bunch of Quack or Can This Really Treat Constipation?
There are a heck of a lot of claimed benefits but unfortunately many are not well supported with scientific findings. Additionally there are a lot of inconsistent reviews and trials out there.
That said, there is some good evidence that acupuncture could very well be an effective treatment for conditions like constipation. And the World Health Organization seems to think so too. They list constipation as a condition acupuncture can potentially treat.
Where's the proof?...
A 2013 study published in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine tested the effectiveness of acupuncture on patients with chronic functional constipation. Different measures taken included things such as the colonic transit activity, effective rate, Cleveland Clinic Score. The trials were performed on 1256 individuals total and overall the results were positive.
- Colonic transit activity = as effective as medicinal therapy
- Cleveland Clinic Score = no less inferior than conventional medical therapy
The conclusion was that acupuncture may be an effective and safe treatment. However, the downside to the study is that it was not of the best quality.
* It is also worth noting that deeper needles to the abdomen area were found to be more effective.
Another study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 2017 tested the effects of electroacupuncture on functional constipation. Patients received treatment for a period of 4 weeks, consisting of 16 total sessions that lasted about 30 minutes each.
*Electroacupuncture is when acupuncture is administered with the addition of the needles being hooked up to a small electric current. It is actually pretty common in western as well as eastern practices.
The results.... significant improvement in bowel movement frequency, stool consistency and reduced strain. While not everyone in the study responded as positively as hoped, over 50% of patients had significant improvement. And maybe even more interestingly... patients retained improved status for 8 weeks following treatment.
Another study titled Acupuncture for Treatment of Chronic Functional Constipation tested both acupuncture and electroacupuncture. 90 Cases were treated and resulted in a 67.7% effectiveness rate. Of those whom it was effective on, things such as defecation frequency, stool quality, difficulty, and defecation time were improved.
Results show effectiveness but there is potential for bias..
A systemic review from 2016 took a look at 19 studies with a total of 1,679 patients and found that, while acupuncture was shown to be more effective than medication overall and with less side effects, many of the studies performed have been poor quality and ran the risk of potentially being biased.
Does this mean that it's not effective?
Certainly not. It just means that there is much room for more improved and properly performed studies to prove acupuncture's effectiveness.
Different Acupuncture Points for Constipation Relief
There is no standard protocol for constipation relief when it comes to acupuncture. There seem to be a many different acupuncturists doing things differently, yet many claim to be getting good results.
That said, according to a 2012 study the best points for a therapeutic effect consist of:
- Back-Shu and Front-Mu (most common acupuncture points)
- He-Sea and Lower He-Sea points
- A Combination of both Shu-Mu points (located at abdomen and lower-back) and He points (located at upper and lower limbs) is thought to be best
Although other points have been shown to be effective as well. The one study that was mentioned above that produced a rate of 67.7% effectiveness used the points:
- Tianshu (ST 25)
- Qihai (CV 6)
- Shangjuxu (ST 37)
- Ahongliao (BL 33)
Also, there is a lengthy post on wikiHow that explains everything but we'll give a brief summary of some of the points that are supposed to be effective for such treatment.
For Pregnancy-related Constipation:
- Zhigou (SJ 6) - This point is located on the top side of the forearm about 4 inches up the arm from the wrist. For best results it is said the needle should be inserted at a perpendicular angle.
- Zhaohai (KID 6) - Zhaohai is just below the bony point of the inside of your ankle. The needle should also go in at a perpendicular angle. When combined with the SJ 6 point it is said to be more effective.
- Tsusanli (ST 36) - Located about halfway between the knee and the ankle on the inside of the leg, the needle should be inserted about 1-2.5in at a perpendicular angle.
- Yanglingquan (GB 34) - This spot is just below the knee on the outside of the leg. Inserting the needle 1-2 inches perpendicularly should do.
Other Constipation Relief Points:
- Taibai (SP 3) - To use this acupuncture point you are going to want to apply a needle about 7/10"-1" deep on the inside of the foot slightly less than halfway from the tip of the big toe to the point of the ankle.
- Zhangmen (LR 13) - LR 13 is on the abdomen just below the bottom rib of your ribcage. Insert a needle at a perpendicular angle about 1.3 inches in.
To Acupuncture or Not To Acupuncture?
While there is a lack of quality studies that suggest its effectiveness, there seems to be a pretty unanimous agreement that it is effective to some degree.
And the fact that it is affordable, has a low risk of side effects, and just looks cool, make it an alternative that very may well be worth trying out for yourself.
There doesn't seem to be any core protocol for treating different types of constipation with acupuncture. It seems that many different points are used and found effective, but maybe this is just how it works.
Oh... and by the way... if you are worrying that it might hurt... Don't! Acupuncture needles are very fine and nothing to worry about. They usually are only a fraction of the thickness of a doctor needle.