Acupuncture paired with mild electric currents may be better than doing nothing at all to relieve severe constipation, a Chinese study suggests.
Researchers randomly assigned patients to receive either what's known as electroacupuncture, where an electrical current is passed between a pair of acupuncture needles, or a dummy treatment with similar needles, for eight weeks.
Compared with the dummy procedure, patients in the electroacupuncture group experienced a significantly greater increase in weekly bowel movements, the study found.
"Most of the patients with severe constipation have to take medicine constantly for defecation," said study co-author Dr. Jia Liu of the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences in Beijing.
"Therefore, the patients with severe constipation may profit from electroacupuncture treatment for its effectiveness, safety and the sustained effect," Liu added by email.
Because acupuncture can involve some pain and discomfort and requires multiple weekly sessions, it still may make sense for patients to consider this therapy only after they fail to respond to traditional Western approaches like laxatives or medications, Liu said.
Chronic constipation occurs when a patient has no more than two complete bowel movements per week with hard stools, frequent straining and the sensation of incomplete evacuation.
Laxatives produce only temporary relief and nearly half of patients are dissatisfied with their traditional therapies, Liu and colleagues note in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
While some previous research has shown electroacupuncture can be effective at increasing bowel movements, the current study is among the first to document a lasting effect from this intervention, Liu said.
The 1,075 study participants underwent 28 sessions of electroacupuncture at traditional acupoints, or sham electroacupuncture at nonacupoints over eight weeks.
All had been constipated for at least three months but hadn't used any medication for constipation for at least two weeks before the start of the experiment.
After eight weeks, people in the electroacupuncture group experienced on average 1.8 more bowel movements each week than they did at the start of the study. Twelve weeks later, this group had about two more bowel movements a week on average than they did at the start.
The group getting dummy treatments improved, too. They had about 0.9 more bowel movements on average each week by the end of the intervention than they did at the start of the study, but didn't continue to improve over the subsequent twelve weeks.
By the end of the 20-week follow-up, about 38 percent of the electroacupuncture group had at least three bowel movements a week, compared with just 14 percent in the dummy treatment group.
One limitation of the study is that it's too short to see if electroacupuncture might provide sustained relief from constipation, the authors note.
More research is also needed to determine if electroacupuncture is safer or more effective than laxatives or other medications for constipation, the authors also point out.
In the U.S., electroacupuncture treatments cost about $75 to $120.
Some patients, including pregnant women and people with heart disease, can't have electroacupuncture, said Zhang Jianbin, a researcher at Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine who wasn't involved in the study.
The treatment is also not recommended for people with seizures or epilepsy.
Others who are open to this alternative and perhaps haven't fared well with laxatives or other interventions might, however, be good candidates for electroacupuncture, Zhang said by email.