Q: I'm contacting you on my wife's behalf. She has suffered from extreme indigestion/heartburn for a long time. She has had endoscopies and ultrasound tests that have all come back clear. She has one last PH test. We really need to look for alternative therapy. Can acupuncture help?
A: There is surprisingly little research on the use of acupuncture for the treatment of acid reflux even though it is a very common presenting condition in our clinics. There are one or two studies like this http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20697939 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17875198
and occasional articles like this one http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4080874/
which suggest other possibilities for the appearance of heartburn symptoms, but not the solid body of evidence one might expect based on the usually quite effective treatment of this problem.
Obviously there are physical problems such as hiatus hernia where there has been a physical change in structure of the oesophageal tract which can cause heartburn. If this is the case, then it will seriously limit the possibilities for treatment in any system of medicine. If investigations show that this is not the case, however, then there may be some value in using acupuncture treatment.
From a Chinese medicine perspective the classic presentation of reflux or heartburn is described as Stomach Fire or Rebellious Stomach Qi where the energy of the Stomach does not follow its normal pattern of causing food to descend but lets it stay in the Stomach or reverse its flow to create the classic symptoms with which people suffer. Knowing the immediate precipitating cause, however, does not mean that one goes straight to this for treatment. The flow of energy in the body, called 'qi' in Chinese, is a complex interweaving of channels connecting Organs whose functions are also inter-related. The art and skill of the practitioner lies in determining what
the primary underlying imbalances are, in the belief that treating here will cause the symptom to go and stay gone rather than be treated simply as a symptom.
This is one of the primary differences between Chinese and conventional medicine. From the Chinese medicine perspective the symptom is an alarm bell telling the practitioner that the system is out of balance. Thus twenty patients with the same symptom could have twenty different underlying causes and therefore twenty different treatments, in contrast to the standard western procedures which have two or three main strategies for a problem. In Chinese medicine the balance of the system is unique in every patient, and this means that each treatment plan is also unique.
It follows that this does limit what we can say about individual cases and why we invariably advise people to visit a local BAcC member for an informal assessment of what is going on and whether treatment would be of benefit. Most practitioners can get an idea in a very short time of what is going on and as a consequence give a good informed view of what might be possible. This would invariably take into account other changes in the way that everything functions which are perhaps not significant enough to concern anyone but from our perspective enrich the picture which we have. Reflux and heatburn are often accompanied by changes in bowel habit, and secondary information can refine the diagnosis a great deal. A practitioner can take all sorts of other factors into account, including mental and emotional ones, to
offer you a much more precise assessment of what may be possible.