|14/09/2005 - Acupuncture could help heartburn. |
A no-needle version of acupuncture may one day offer a new way to battle chronic heartburn, preliminary research suggests.
A team led by Dr Richard Holloway of the University of Adelaide in Australia reports its findings in a recent issue of the American Journal of Physiology-Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology.
The study, involving heartburn-free volunteers, found that electrical stimulation of an acupuncture point on the wrist reduced the number of "relaxations" in the band of muscle surrounding the passage from the oesophagus to the stomach.
The significance of this is that temporary relaxations in the band, called the lower oesophageal sphincter, can allow stomach acids to back up into the oesophagus.
These relaxations are, in fact, the "major mechanism" by which acid reflux and subsequent heartburn symptoms occur, says Holloway.
He and his colleagues found that among 14 healthy volunteers, acupoint stimulation reduced sphincter relaxations by 40%.
But it's too soon to recommend acupuncture for battling heartburn, says Holloway.
"There is no justification at this stage for heartburn sufferers to rush out and receive acupoint stimulation treatment," he says.
The findings, the researcher stressed, are "very preliminary" and showed only that sphincter relaxations declined during acupoint stimulation.
Whether the effect lasts beyond the procedure, and whether that would translate to fewer episodes of acid reflux, requires further study, says Holloway.
Acupuncture has been used for more than 2,000 years in Chinese medicine to treat a wide variety of ailments.
In recent years, medical studies have confirmed that the therapy may soothe chronic pain from conditions such as arthritis, as well as quell nausea and vomiting.
According to traditional medicine, acupuncture points on the skin are connected to internal pathways that conduct energy, and stimulating the points with a fine needle promotes the flow of this energy.
Modern research has suggested that acupuncture may work by altering signals among nerve cells or affecting the release of various chemicals of the central nervous system.
But no one knows for sure how acupuncture works, Holloway says, and though it has traditionally been used for stomach ailments, there had been no prior evidence that the technique affects the workings of the lower oesophageal sphincter.
The volunteers in his team's study underwent electro-acupoint stimulation, which uses electrodes instead of needles. The electrodes deliver a small electrical pulse to an acupuncture point, in this case the Neiguan acupoint on the wrist.
According to Chinese medicine, stimulation of this point aids gastrointestinal symptoms.
The researchers found that when the wrist point was stimulated, volunteers had 40% fewer sphincter relaxations than they did when a "sham" point on the hip was stimulated.
Volunteers had between three and four relaxations per hour, instead of six, when the wrist point was stimulated.
Holloway and team had speculated that the reason might lie in the body's release of endorphins or other pain-killing chemicals called enkephalins.
But in a second experiment, where volunteers received a medication that blocks these chemicals, acupoint stimulation still reduced sphincter relaxations.
"The reason why the acupoint that we chose affects [sphincter relaxations] is completely unclear," Holloway says.
Among the next research steps, he noted, is to show that acupoint stimulation can actually reduce acid reflux after a meal.