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Acupuncture for IBS

Posted 8 years ago by Guest Author

Written by Dr Dapeng Zhang, from the Dapeng Clinic.

What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a general heading for a range of symptoms felt mostly in the abdominal area.  It is a disorder of the gastrointestinal tract and sufferers may typically experience episodes of pain or discomfort from distension, bloating and flatulence.  Additionally, there may be an alteration in bowel habits, (including number and timing of visits to the toilet) which could be either diarrhoea and/or constipation.  The negative effects of chronic (long term, persistent) IBS can accumulate so that the general wellbeing of the IBS sufferer is affected.  Reduced energy levels, social inhibitions and compromised nutrient absorption from damage to the intestinal tract begin to add to any stress, depression and general feelings of being ‘below par’ that a sufferer may already be enduring. 

Why do people get IBS?

There are many factors that are believed to play a role in the development of IBS symptoms. These include; alterations in peristalsis (the spontaneous natural contraction and relaxation in the movements of the bowel), psychological and emotional stress, alterations or interference in how the brain and digestive tract communicate and respond, an overactive or dampened immune system, low grade inflammation, alterations in the microbial state (i.e. balance of healthy bacteria), and inherited or family tendencies.  According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, IBS can also be caused by poorly flowing Qi in the body. This is where acupuncture can be a useful tool to combat IBS and its symptoms such as bloating.


Acupuncture works by improving the body's flow of energy, or Qi.  

How does Acupuncture work and what is Qi?

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) it is believed that throughout the body there is a system of meridians or invisible channels, which have a flow of energy or Qi (pronounced "chee"). These meridians, like rivers, have smaller tributaries as part of the network so that Qi can reach all parts of the body.  An acupuncture point is one where Qi is accessed, rather like making contact with a vortex of energy. There is often a low-level electrical resistance at these points. There are some 365 body points in traditional acupuncture alone - each having a specific set of uses. 

In a body which exists in a state of physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing, Qi moves smoothly in an even, balanced way.  However, if this equilibrium becomes disturbed it can upset the consistency and direction of the flow of Qi, so that pain, illness or dysfunction may result. Qi may be affected by many factors including physical injury, trauma, poor or inadequate nutrition, stress, grief or environmental conditions.

Very fine disposable acupuncture needles are inserted at specific points along the channels to alter the balance of the Qi.  Therefore, a change in the way the patient’s body uses its energy is brought about, relieving not only the symptoms with which the patient originally presents, but perhaps also more minor problems that have not previously received any specific attention. IBS is not easily treated by conventional methods and, since Acupuncture is deemed very safe and drug free, it is increasingly being sought out by sufferers. 

The Traditional Chinese Medical Approach to Treatment

In the absence of any definite evidence of physical or functional changes from disease or injury, treatment of a condition like IBS will be determined upon the patient’s most bothersome symptoms.  During the in-depth discussions holistic doctors like myself have when first meeting a patient, many factors which influence the patients’ condition begin to come to light. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, IBS is caused by a combination of the following:

Longstanding repressed emotions such as anger, hatred, resentment, stress, and depression.  The repression or ‘bottling up’ of negative feelings will stagnate the liver Qi (energy).  The liver’s free flowing function is especially important in harmonizing both the emotions and digestion.  Stagnant liver Qi will then invade the spleen causing abdominal distension and pain, constipation and /or diarrhoea, flatulence, sour belching, nausea, vomiting and tiredness.

Long periods of pensiveness, melancholy, and excessive mental activities will knot up the Qi and weaken the spleen giving rise to tiredness, loss of appetite, bad digestion and loose stools.  There may also be lack of concentration and poor memory.  Irregular eating habits, eating too little, following a strict diet, or overeating, will also impair the function of the spleen.

Overuse of antibiotics in the treatment of various respiratory and infectious diseases. Most antibiotics are considered in TCM to be cold and damp in nature and will injure the spleen and stomach resulting in diarrhoea, candida (yeast) infections and diarrhoea as well as tiredness, weakness and poor weight gain.

So can acupuncture help those with  IBS?

Acupuncture offers a positive optional solution for IBS sufferers. Often the term ‘Irritable Bowel Syndrome’ is used as a catchall phrase for all cases of abdominal distress that do not have other explanations. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the diverse kinds of IBS cases are not viewed as falling into one broad disease category, but are broken down into many different disorders because the causes can be so varied.  TCM recognises that the individual symptoms vary greatly from person to person because the underlying problem is usually very different for each person.  In TCM terms, IBS may be classified as a type of abdominal/intestinal pain, or epigastrial (stomach) pain, or as a type of diarrhoea, depending on the individual symptoms experienced.

For IBS with abdominal bloating, the cause is usually due to liver Qi becoming blocked, which may cause further problems with the spleen’s digestive functions. The blocked liver energy causes symptoms of bloating, constipation, and belching, as well as moodiness and irritability.  These symptoms may well be aggravated by emotional disturbances or upset. Where the spleen is also involved, the sufferer may also feel fatigue and have alternating constipation and diarrhoea.  Acupuncture treatment helps mobilise liver energy in patients resolve the body’s over long retention of food, relieve pain and improve digestion while correcting spleen function to resolve diarrhoea and generally improve energy levels.

For IBS with stomach pain, the cause can be due to a variety of different imbalances within the stomach leading to improper or incomplete digestion of food. People with this type of IBS might experience a variety of symptoms ranging from pain, nausea and vomiting to belching, headaches, diarrhoea or constipation. Each and every symptom experienced by the sufferer will depend on the specific problem occurring within the stomach. These may be due to heat or cold damaging the stomach, or because the stomach energy is blocked. In all these cases, acupuncture is helpful in restoring the stomach to its proper function so that digestion problems and symptoms are resolved.


I’m happy to say there have been some extremely encouraging developments in recent years in the field of acupuncture to support health in those with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. In addition to significant volumes of case study and anecdotal evidence, several small studies exist to suggest that Acupuncture may well help people who have any or all of these symptoms. Research has also shown that physical activity improves symptoms in patients with IBS and protects against symptom deterioration. A recent demonstration of this has been provided by a study from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden

Also, an experiment in the use of electro-acupuncture (in which a small electrical shock is delivered via the acupuncture needle) was conducted on dogs causing their stomachs to empty faster! This is the first clear evidence that acupuncture is actually able to directly affect the function of the bowel, and suggests that acupuncture may well be useful in treating IBS.


*Gastroenterol Nurs. 2009 Jul-Aug;32(4):243-55. Aug;32(4):243-55

ColumbiaUniversitySchoolof Nursing, New York, NY10032, USA. [email protected]

**Neuroendocrinological effects of acupuncture treatment in patients with irritable bowel syndrome.

Akehurst R, Kaltenthaler E. Treatment of irritable bowel syndrome: a review of randomised controlled trials. Gut. 2001 Feb;48(2):272-82.

***Maxwell PR et al. Irritable bowel syndrome. Lancet. 1997 Dec 6;350(9092):1691-5.

Doctor Dapeng Zhang BSc.(hons), MSc.  runs a successful practice in London’s Harley Street.  Dr Zhang is a member of the British Acupuncture Council.  He has a wealth of experience in practice, teaching and writing gained over twenty years.  He studied Traditional Chinese Medicine at the City of Tianjin University, China, becoming a doctor in the city’s hospital.  After working at a teaching hospital in Chicago, USA, he came to the UK and became a regular TCM columnist for the Manchester Evening News.

In London, Dr. Zhang began teaching acupuncture at the University of East London as Clinical Supervisor whilst maintaining a successful practice in Harley Street, the Dorchester Hotel, and other celebrated London establishments.  An interest in Integrative Medicine means that he often works collaboratively with other medical specialists and will frequently act upon referrals from his specialist peers.

Dr. Zhang's has conducted extensive research into pain management using muscular manipulation techniques, Tuina Massage, Quigong, meditation, acupuncture and oriental healing. Gastrointestinal problems, male and female infertility, Multiple Sclerosis and cancer are among the conditions that have been alleviated or helped towards resolution by his holistic approach.

Dr. Zhang's endeavours in all his work to stay true to his core belief: that we should always seek to keep mind, body and spirit in harmony.

To find out more about Dr Zhang, visit

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