Acupuncture for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a bowel disorder that involves abnormal defecation in the form of diarrhoea, constipation or the alternation of both, often along with abdominal pain. Frequency of defecation may be variable, and passing stool may be accompanied by feelings of strain, incomplete evacuation or extreme relief. Most often the symptoms are associated with the experience of stress. It is a common but not serious condition that is believed to affect 10-20% of the population in Western countries at any one time, with higher prevalence among young adults and women.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome and TCM

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) recognises the interrelationship between mind and body in the causes and treatment of IBS, and includes long-established therapeutic approaches to the condition. Acupuncture,and the dietary and lifestyle advice of your practitioner can lead to lasting improvement.

TCM uses acupuncture to treat IBS. From the point of view of Traditional Chinese Medicine, the root causes of IBS are Liver Qi stagnation and weakness of the Spleen. Liver Qi stagnation arises when the free flow of Qi energy around the body is obstructed and it is mainly due to emotional factors such as frustration, stress, and anger. The ultimate origin of the emotional imbalances is liable to lie in challenging experiences in one’s life. Weakness of the Spleen amounts to weakness of the digestive system, which is normally due to the effects of dietary choices and irregular eating patterns.

TCM treats IBS by looking at patients as a whole. The conditions of the mind and body are understood as intimately linked. Acupuncture and herbal treatments used will address the imbalances in both that are manifesting in the symptom, as experienced uniquely by the individual. Over the course of treatment the practitioner will factor the patient’s responses into their strategy, in order to improve the underlying conditions that lead to IBS (possibly in combination with other problems) rather than the symptoms alone. Lasting emotional balance and a well-functioning digestive system are the ultimate aim.

Recognising the role of environmental influences on IBS is an important part of the TCM approach. Exercise and relaxation will help to cure the Liver Qi stagnation, and modified diet and eating habits help to strengthen the Spleen. TCM sees food as energy, not only as a source of nutrition. With regard to IBS, sweets, cold raw food and dairy products in particular can impair the digestive system. As the process of digestion is the process of warming all food and drinks within the Stomach, if the Spleen is using too much yang Qi to warm cold food up, it will become damaged and weak. General advice includes starting the day with warm water to help relax the colon and aid defecation, drinking plenty of water, and reducing coffee intake. Eating regularly, slowly and chewing well also helps to calm and strengthen the digestive system. Eat porridge for breakfast and a cooked lunch, which will help to support the Spleen, and in turn will help form stools and stabilise energy levels.

Is Acupuncture Helpful in the Treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Cases of IBS are regularly treated successfully by Traditional Chinese Medicine, including at this clinic. While little formal research has been undertaken, one study found statistically significant improvement in the quality of life and symptom scores of IBS patients who were treated with acupuncture 1. Reduced perception of stress and pain were shown to be maintained four weeks after the treatment period. This was in contrast to a group of patients who were treated with relaxation therapy and experienced initial benefits that diminished after the treatment period.


1 Lu B, Hu Y, Tenner S. A randomized controlled trial of acupuncture for Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Program and abstracts of the 65th Annual Scientific Meeting of the American College of Gastroenterology; October 16-18, 2000, New York, NY.


The Sean Barkes Clinic does not claim to cure any conventional medical disease states. Traditional Chinese Medicine seeks to re-establish and maintain the harmonious function of the human body-mind using tried and tested principles that have been discovered and matured over millennia. A Western medical diagnosis provides very little by way of insight in informing a Chinese Medical diagnosis. Patients usually recognise their own condition in terms of the medical disease category that they have been given by their GP or other conventional medical practitioner. The research presented here is merely an indication of the potential to draw parallels between Traditional Chinese Medicine and Modern Western Medicine.

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