Acupuncture, a staple in traditional Chinese medicine, continues to gain popularity in the U.S. as more Americans try this ancient practice to relieve pain. A survey published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine showed that about 14 million Americans have used acupuncture as part of their health care, a significant increase from only eight million users in the early 2000s. Data from the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health also revealed that Americans spent more than $30 billion in 2012 on alternative treatments like acupuncture.
Acupuncture is practiced by inserting extremely thin needles through the skin at different points on the patient’s body. Traditional Chinese medicine states that this practice balances the energy flow in the meridians of the body. Western practitioners, on the other hand, perceive these acupuncture points as places where nerve, muscle and connective tissue stimulation occurs. The US NCCIH considers acupuncture as a generally safe form of alternative medicine. The practice is primarily used in relieving a variety of illnesses including chemotherapy-induced nausea, menstrual cramps, migraines and chronic pain. It is also used in easing fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Acupuncture as an acid reflux treatment
Gastroesophageal reflux disease is a condition resulting from the improper closure of the lower esophageal sphincter, thus resulting in acid regurgitation and subsequent heartburn. Other symptoms include hoarseness, excessive salivation and uncomfortable swallowing. Food intake is the primary culprit of GERD. Citrus fruits, spicy food and caffeinated beverages are the most common food groups that trigger the condition. Other factors such as alcohol consumption, obesity and smoking also play a role in the onset of GERD. Experts have repeatedly prescribed holistic remedies to help keep acid reflux at bay. Maintaining a healthy weight, eating small meals, quitting smoking and avoiding foods that trigger GERD symptoms are just a few lifestyle changes that can help combat the disorder.
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Health care practitioners also commonly prescribe antacids to relieve the acidity. However, more studies have established the efficacy of acupuncture in countering the effects of acid reflux.
A study in the Chinese Journal of Digestion found that GERD patients who received acupuncture treatment showed better outcomes than their counterparts who did not receive the treatment. Researchers examined 40 patients with refractory acid reflux and found that those who were on acupuncture therapy showed significant improvements in lower esophageal sphincter pressure and distal esophageal peristaltic amplitude, compared with controls who did not show significant improvements. Patients in the acupuncture group also showed a significant increase in normal swallows and delays in esophageal emptying.
More research shows that acupuncture helped regulate gastric acid secretion, gastrointestinal motility, neuroendocrine secretions and perceived pain thresholds in patients with non-erosive reflux disease, a subtype of GERD. Experts also found that the treatment helped bolster blood motilin and gastrin concentrations, which in turn helped restore LES function. A related review revealed that patients who received acupuncture treatment had a total effective rate of 93.5 percent after 30 days, compared with only 87.5 percent in those who were on drug therapy.
Another study showed that applying mild stimulation to an acupuncture point on the wrist helped reduce the frequency of transient lower esophageal sphincter relaxations (TLESR) in patients with GERD. Researchers found TLESR frequency decreased from six to 3.5 per hour following mild stimulation. The results were published in the American Journal of Physiology-Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology. Furthermore, an analysis in the Journal of Gastroenterology cited acupuncture as a potentially effective treatment for acid reflux. Research published in the journal Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics also revealed that adding acupuncture treatment to proton-pump-inhibitor drugs proved more effective in managing acid reflux symptoms compared with increasing drug dosage by double.