Have you ever had heartburn? You know, that “should have skipped the nachos,” “why did I have that last beer,” “not the best time for a nap” feel? Turns out, research has shown that acupuncture can help to relieve heartburn!
According to a representative population study in Olmsted County, Minnesota, 19.8% of people experience heartburn and/or reflux on a weekly basis (1). The default Western-Medicine approach to this symptom is to prescribe any number of antacid medications (some of these, like calcium carbonate Tums tabs, directly neutralize the acid being produced by the stomach, while others, like H2 antihistamine antacids and proton-pump inhibitors [PPIs] target the site of stomach acid production to keep the gastric lining from making acid to begin with) (4). While this may reduce the discomfort associated with reflux and heartburn, it can interfere with digestion. The stomach acid is there to help us digest our foods so we can extract nutrients from them and rebuild and refuel our cells. When we limit the acidity of the stomach, we limit its capacity to perform its functions, and other symptoms may arise. Additionally, in many cases, antacid medications are not effective (2).
In a randomized-controlled clinical trial, thirty adult patients with reflux symptoms that persisted two or more times per week despite being on standard care proton-pump inhibitors were sorted into two groups. One group received the standard of Western care, doubling the dose of PPIs, while the other group received the same original dose of PPIs plus a ten treatment course of acupuncture, administered three times per week for two weeks and then two times per week for two weeks. Throughout the study, patients maintained symptom diaries, tracking night-time and day-time heartburn symptoms. At the end of the ten treatment acupuncture protocol, a significant difference in symptoms emerged between the two groups. The acupuncture group had significantly lower levels of day-time and night-time heartburn when compared with their baseline and when compared with the other treatment group at the follow-up time. The group which received standard Western care had no significant differences in their symptoms between their baseline and followup. This study provides definitive evidence that acupuncture, when used adjunctly with ongoing Western care, is an effective treatment for heartburn, exceeding the effects of Western care alone (3).
The researchers note that the effects of acupuncture treatment were only observable after ten treatments (3). So when your acupuncturist recommends you come back every week for ten treatments, it’s not because they want your money, it’s because that’s what really works! When you take a medication from a physician, how frequently do you take it? Check a bottle of pain-killers - many say to take them every 4-6 hours. That’s a lot of doses! If you’re considering acupuncture, give it a real chance to work, the same way you’d give your antibiotics a chance by finishing the full course the way the doctor prescribed. Come regularly, come for at least one full course, and you may really be pleased with the results!
1 Locke G.R. 3rd, Talley, N. J., Fett, S. L., Zinsmeister, A. R., & Melton, L. J. 3rd, (1997).
Prevalence and clinical spectrum of gastroesophageal reflux: A population-based study in Olmsted County, Minnesota. Gastroenterology, 112(5). PMID: 9136821
2 Flaws, B. & Sionneau, P. (2016). The Treatment of Modern Western Medical Diseases with Chinese Medicine, A Textbook and Clinical Manual: Expanded Second Edition. Blue Poppy Press, 2001. Ann Arbor, MI, USA.
3 Dickman, R., Schiff, E., Holland, A., Wrights, C., Sarela, S. R., Han, B. & Fass, R., (2007). Clinical trial: acupuncture vs. doubling the proton pump inhibitor dose in refractory heartburn. Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics, 26. dos:10.1111/j.
4 VanMeter, K. & Hubert, R., (2014). Gould’s Pathophysiology for the Health Professions: Fifth Edition. Elsevier. St. Louis, Missouri, USA.