Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Traditional Chinese Medicine

Many sufferers of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) seek relief from acupuncture. While some medical practitioners use IBS as a "one size fits all" diagnosis, practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) approach IBS on an individual, symptom-by-symptom basis. Avoiding a standard IBS diagnosis helps to avoid a blanket IBS treatment. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, what is commonly referred to as IBS is mainly caused by the infection of the gastrointestinal system. In TCM, infection is believed to be caused by the pathogenic factors of dampness and heat, either obtained externally (such as from weather) or generated internally (such as internal injury from improper food).

Irritable Bowel Syndrome in Western Medicine

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or "spastic colon" is a functional bowel disorder. The small and large intestines do not function appropriately, although there is no structural damage found through diagnostic testing. The condition is characterized by abdominal pain and changes in bowel habits not associated with any abnormalities seen on routine clinical testing. IBS is fairly common, and makes up 20-50% of visits to gastroenterologists. Women are affected three times more than men, with the average age of onset being between 20 and 40.

There are two forms of IBS: Lower Abdominal Pain IBS and Non-Ulcer Dyspepsia. Lower Abdominal is usually described as either diarrhea-predominant (IBS-D) or constipation-predominant (IBS-C). The primary symptom of IBS-D is diarrhea immediately after waking or immediately after eating, along with pain, bloating, urgency and urinary incontinence. Constipation-predominant (IBS-C), also known as "spastic colon" manifests with pain over at least one area of the colon and periodic constipation. This pain may be continuous or it may come in bouts, and is frequently relieved by moving the bowels. IBS with alternating stool pattern (IBS-A) is either constipation alternating with normal stools or constipation alternating with diarrhea. The stool often contains mucus. Associated symptoms include bloating, gas, nausea and dyspepsia. Eating can commonly trigger these symptoms.

An important new IBS subtype, post-infectious IBS (IBS-PI), is drawing much clinical investigation. Symptoms are frequently triggered by stress, emotional factors, ingestion of food, chronic pelvic pain, fibromyalgia and various mental disorders (in a small minority). While no explanation for this phenomenon exists, it does strengthen the view that there is a neurological and psychological component to IBS.

The role of hormones in IBS is not yet fully understood. Menstruation frequently triggers or exacerbates IBS symptoms, while pregnancy and menopause can either worsen or improve symptoms. Hormone replacement therapy is associated with an increased risk of developing IBS. Western medicine treats IBS with anti-spasmodic or anti-diarrhea medication, diet modification and stress reduction techniques.

Tips for Avoiding or Controlling IBS

People who are affected by this disorder should maintain a regular eating habit consisting of high fiber, refrain from heavy and large meals that are high in fat, drink plenty of water daily, avoid smoking, and develop a regular toilet schedule. Regular exercise can help relieve stress, a factor that seems to exacerbate the disorder.

The Treatment of IBS in Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine uses acupuncture to remove dampness and heat from within the system by selecting certain acupuncture points along the meridians of the stomach and large intestine, most of which are located along the lateral side of the legs and arms. This causes IBS symptoms to dissipate. At the same time, reinforcement techniques can be used to strengthen the body's immune system, while reducing techniques can relieve stress, thereby preventing future exacerbation of the disorder.

Another important component of treatment is the Chinese herbal formula. In Chinese herbology, a group of herbs is combined to specifically address a person's unique constitution. This is one way in which treatment is very individualized: a board-certified master herbalist will treat no two patients with the same combination of herbs. Most herbalists use a "classical formula" as a foundation. Many classical formulas, written up to 2,000 years ago, are still commonly used today. Groups of herbs can be added or subtracted from classical formulas to customize them for patients.