Constipation means having fewer than three bowel movements a week, with stools that are usually hard, dry, small and difficult to pass. It typically takes 40 to 45 hours for wastes from your food to make the trip through your gastrointestinal system and exit your body.
A new study from China indicates that electroacupuncture can help treat severe constipation. The treatments are only effective when there is no underlying medical problem, and no use of medications that can cause constipation. Of the 1,075 individuals enrolled none were having more than 2 bowel movements a week when they joined the study.
The researchers divided the participants into 2 groups – those in one group received electroacupuncture while those in the other received sham treatments. The acupuncture was performed at 15 hospitals in China. Electroacupuncture involves low-voltage currents delivered through acupuncture needles. In this case, the needles were inserted at 6 points in the abdomen for 30 minutes per treatment. With the sham treatment, the needles didn’t penetrate as deeply as they did with the real thing and were placed at non-acupuncture points.
The researchers reported that 31 percent of the patients treated with electroacupuncture had an average of 3 or more bowel movements a week over the course of the 8-week study, and that almost 38 percent of them reported having 3 or more bowel movements per week during 12 weeks of follow up. Only 12 percent of the patients in the sham acupuncture group reported the same results during the 8 weeks of treatment and only 14 percent of them had equivalent relief during the 12 weeks of follow up. In addition, the patients who received electroacupuncture reported improvements in their general well-being and quality of life. The most common acupuncture-related side effects were hematoma (a collection of blood, usually clotted) at the site of needling, sleeplessness and sharp pain, although these were infrequent in both groups and were considered mild and transitory.
Electroacupuncture might be beneficial for some people suffering from severe constipation, especially constipation that hasn’t responded to other treatments. However, the study didn’t include follow-up to show whether or not the relief lasted longer than 12 weeks in the patients who were helped. The researchers noted that 28 electroacupuncture treatments within 8 weeks could be burdensome for many patients.
Another consideration for patients in the U.S. is that neither Medicare nor Medicaid cover acupuncture, although some private insurance companies may provide coverage. Costs can range from $60 to $120 per treatment, or more.
You can see my recommendations for dealing with constipation here.
Andrew Weil, M.D
Jia Marie Liu, “Acupuncture for Chronic Severe Functional Constipation: A Randomized, Controlled Trial.” Annals of Internal Medicine, September 13, 2016, doi:10.7326/M15-3118