Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: August 2023

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a condition of chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. The two main forms of IBD are Crohn’s disease (CD) and ulcerative colitis (UC). While medications such as aminosalicylates, immunomodulators, corticosteroids, antibiotics, and biologic therapies are the most important part of therapy and are the only treatments that have been scientifically proven to be effective in treating the underlying disease, some people find additional relief from their symptoms through the use of alternative or complementary therapies, such as acupuncture.

As always, patients should talk with their healthcare providers before beginning acupuncture or any new type of therapy.

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a central part of traditional Chinese medicine, and it is often used to help relieve pain. During acupuncture, needles that are tiny and very thin are inserted into specific points on a patient’s body. The needles are usually left in place for 10-20 minutes before the therapist removes them. Sometimes, the therapist might move the needles slightly while they are in place on the body. In other cases, the needles might have very mild electrical currents delivered through them.1

Traditional Chinese medicine explains acupuncture is a tool to balance the energy flow or life force, known as qi or chi (pronounced “chee”). In Chinese medicine, this life force energy flows through the body in meridians, or pathways. By using needles at specific points on these meridians, acupuncturists believe it will re-balance the body’s natural energy flow and relieve symptoms of disease.1

Western acupuncture therapists often consider it a way to stimulate the body’s nerves, muscles, and tissues. Many believe that this can help to:

  • Improve blood flow
  • Enhance the naturally occurring pain relievers produced by the body1

What conditions is acupuncture commonly used to treat?

Acupuncture is typically used to treat pain caused by a variety of illnesses. A few of the most common conditions treated with acupuncture include:

  • Headaches
  • Back pain
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Menstrual cramps
  • Fibromyalgia1

How might acupuncture help people with IBD?

Acupuncture has been used to by traditional Chinese medicine practitioners to treat symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease for many years. The treatment is based on the individualized diagnosis and assessment of the patient by the acupuncturist. Some studies have found that acupuncture was effective in treating symptoms of IBD, but more research is needed to learn more about the effect of acupuncture on IBD symptoms. Some of the studies also assessed the effectiveness of acupuncture with a technique called moxibustion for IBD. During moxibustion, acupuncturists burn mugwort, a common herb, over the acupuncture points. Some initial studies of acupuncture with moxibustion on people with IBD have suggested that this technique may provide some relief of symptoms.2,3

What are the risks associated with acupuncture?

Finding a certified acupuncturist that has gone through the necessary training will greatly lower any risks associated with acupuncture. The most common side effect is soreness or tenderness from the needles. Other potential side effects are organ injury and infection. These are extremely rare if the acupuncturist is experienced.1

Some patients will not be candidates for acupuncture. Such patients may include:

  • People with bleeding disorders
  • People with pacemakers
  • Pregnant women1

As with any form of therapy or treatment, consult with your healthcare provider before beginning.

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