If you suffer from GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease, you are not alone. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, about 20 percent of Americans experience reflux symptoms on a regular basis. While GERD is typically managed with lifestyle changes and medication, there are a number of complementary and alternative medicine treatments you might consider. It's possible acupuncture may help provide some relief, but more research is needed to better understand its effectiveness.
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GERD happens when the contents of your stomach repeatedly come back up into your esophagus -- the tube that food travels through from your throat to your stomach. If you have GERD, you may be aware of the taste of food or the presence of stomach acid in the back of your throat between meals. Typical symptoms include heartburn or a burning sensation in your throat. Several studies suggest that for certain cases of heartburn, acupuncture may complement other therapies to help ease symptoms.
Acupressure and Acupuncture
Both acupressure and acupuncture have their roots in traditional Chinese medicine. They are based on the theory that your health is affected by specific patterns of energy, or qi -- pronounced "chee" -- that flow through your body along channels called “meridians.” During acupuncture, thin, solid needles are inserted into your skin to restore balance at points associated with the meridians for a specific disease. In GERD acupuncture studies, points in the face, abdomen, forearms, knees and feet have been used. Acupressure is based on a similar concept, but instead of using needles, physical pressure is applied to acupuncture points using the hand, elbow or specific devices.
Acupuncture for GERD
There's not yet any reported data on acupressure for GERD. In contrast, several studies report data on acupuncture, which has been used to treat illness for more than 5,000 years in China. Theoretically, acupuncture may help decrease the amount of acid your stomach produces, improve the time it takes for food to move through your digestive system and/or help with pain sensitivity. A study published in the August 2010 issue of the "Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine" reported that six weeks of daily acupuncture treatment seemed to to have a positive effect on GERD symptoms, though the mechanism was unclear. The addition of well designed placebo-controlled trials would help to further characterize the efficacy of acupuncture.
Acupuncture is generally considered safe, but it's not without risk. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers acupuncture needles to be medical devices that should be used only by licensed practitioners. The needles must be sterile, nontoxic and labeled for single use. Potential side effects include infection and organ injury caused by improper technique. If you decide to give acupuncture a try, be sure to let your doctor know, since it’s important to coordinate care. Also contact your doctor if your GERD symptoms persist despite treatment. Finally, it is always best to take chest pain seriously, as symptoms of heartburn and heart-related chest pains can overlap.
Medical advisor: Jonathan E. Aviv, M.D., FACS