Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine treatment for treating several medical conditions, including Crohn’s disease. Crohn’s disease is a chronic medical condition that causes inflammation throughout the digestive tract.

The condition is an inflammatory bowel disorder that can cause significant discomfort and potential complications, including gastrointestinal bleeding, intestinal blockages, and abscesses. It can also cause significant mental stress, depression, and anxiety.

Acupuncture may help reduce these symptoms by affecting how the brain interprets stress and pain signals.

Read on to explore what acupuncture is, how it works in a person with Crohn’s disease, and which benefits it may offer.

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Acupuncture is a Chinese medicine practice that involves inserting small, thin, single-use needles into key areas in the body to achieve various health benefits. Practitioners use the technique to treat migraine headaches and musculoskeletal pain.

Acupuncture practitioners identify specific points on a person’s body that act as “channels” or energy pathways to certain organs. They believe these channels carry “qi,” a life force or energy, to the body. If the channels become imbalanced, this energy cannot flow, and adverse effects such as pain or illness occur.

By using acupuncture, trained practitioners can help:

  • increase blood flow
  • reduce inflammation
  • ease pain relief
  • aid relaxation

Acupuncture practitioners also use this method to treat several gastrointestinal conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease.

Learn more about how acupuncture works.

In Crohn’s disease, acupuncture is a complementary health approach. This means the technique does not cure Crohn’s disease but instead helps work along with other treatments to manage symptoms.

In addition to traditional acupuncture, some practitioners also perform electroacupuncture. This method involves inserting two needles and using a mild electric current to stimulate the body’s response.

Some practitioners use moxibustion as a treatment alongside acupuncture for Crohn’s. Here, practitioners heat special sticks or burn herbs, such as mugwort, over certain parts of the body.

There are many studies to support the benefits of acupuncture for medical use.

Learn about medical treatments for Crohn’s disease.

The following are some of the most commonly cited potential acupuncture benefits for those with Crohn’s disease.

Reducing Crohn’s disease symptoms

A 2014 study of the benefits of acupuncture and moxibustion on people with Crohn’s disease found 3 weeks of treatments three times per week reduced symptoms of the condition.

The research concluded that those in the acupuncture and moxibustion treatment group reported higher quality of life scores and lower Crohn’s disease activity scores. After 12 weeks of treatment, 74% of those in the acupuncture and moxibustion group were in remission of their symptoms. In contrast, only 36% of the patients in the control group were in remission and were still experiencing symptoms.

A 2019 review of animal studies found acupuncture helped reduce diarrhea and weight loss. It also helped reduce signs of inflammation in the blood. All these can be indicators of Crohn’s disease. However, animal study results may not completely carry over in humans, so they can be harder to evaluate.

Learn about the symptoms of Crohn’s disease.

Enhancing brain-gut function

A 2017 study of people with Crohn’s disease receiving electroacupuncture found that they experienced brain changes that could reduce perceptions of pain and stressful emotions. Participants received three electroacupuncture sessions a week for 12 weeks and underwent MRI scans to detect brain changes.

The researchers found that electroacupuncture affected an area in the brain called the homeostatic processing network. This area is responsible for regulating pain, specifically visceral pain that includes stomach pain. The scientists concluded that electroacupuncture could help achieve balance between the brain and gut to reduce feelings of discomfort in those with Crohn’s disease.

Learn about other natural remedies for Crohn’s disease.

Mental health benefits

People living with irritable bowel diseases, including Crohn’s disease, are 20–30% more likely to experience depression than those who do not. In turn, higher levels of depression and anxiety may increase a person’s Crohn’s disease activity, worsening their symptoms.

Acupuncture practitioners have used their techniques to help treat depression and anxiety. However, there are no specific human research studies on how acupuncture techniques specifically affect the mental well-being of those with Crohn’s disease. Despite this, a 2020 meta-analysis investigated the effectiveness and safety of acupuncture on depression. Although the authors stated that more research is needed, the technique appears to be more effective than using antidepressants alone.

One case study of a woman with Crohn’s disease receiving acupuncture therapy found that her symptoms seemed to flare up less following stressful situations. However, there are not yet any larger-scale studies supporting this theory.

Learn more about improving mental health at our mental health hub.

While acupuncture involves inserting needles into key points in the body, they do not penetrate deeply into the skin. The technique is generally safe, although there are a few rare but potential adverse effects.

A systematic review on acupuncture and safety concluded that the most common adverse effects were:

A small percentage of studies also reported the potential for organ or tissue injuries from this treatment.

With this in mind, an acupuncture practitioner should educate their client on the potential safety risks before performing these procedures. They should address how they focus on patient safety, including how they dispose of their needles.

To find a certified acupuncturist, a person can search for one through the National Council and Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.

A review related to Crohn’s disease and traditional Chinese medicine practices, such as acupuncture, concluded that they may help increase the likelihood of symptom remission for Crohn’s disease patients.

The review authors concluded that as an adjunctive or accompanying treatment to traditional medications and treatment plans, traditional Chinese medicine increased remission maintenance — how long a person was symptom-free — and reduced inflammatory markers of Crohn’s disease in the blood.

The authors concluded that using traditional Chinese medicine approaches combined with Crohn’s disease medications was more effective than medications alone.

However, more research with large-scale studies of hundreds or thousands of Crohn’s disease patients would help bolster these conclusions.

Acupuncture is a traditional treatment method that may help reduce the symptoms of Crohn’s disease. The technique can affect how the brain interprets stress and pain signals.

However, there are not enough studies to definitively confirm the benefits of acupuncture in people with this condition.

If a person with Crohn’s disease is interested in acupuncture to help their symptoms, they should speak with their doctor about adding this as a treatment.