Chronic acid reflux is medically termed gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and it’s one of the most common GI disorders among Americans, with around 20 percent of the U.S. population suffering from the condition.
While everyone experiences the occasional bout of acid reflux, in people with GERD, reflux is frequent and obtrusive to the point where it can damage the patient’s quality of life.
For GERD sufferers, there are a few treatment options. Among them are several classes of medication and a couple of surgical procedures. While these options can be effective for many people, there are also side effects to consider. In some cases, those side effects can make treatment difficult to continue.
For those patients – and for patients who aren’t getting enough relief from their medications – acupuncture treatment may be a viable alternative. For centuries, acupuncture has been used to treat a huge variety of conditions, including many GI conditions. And emerging research shows positive results in this area.
What is Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) and What are its Symptoms?
Gastroesophageal reflux (GER), otherwise known as heartburn, is normal if it’s experienced every once and a while. GERD, though, is characterized by more frequent and longer-lasting episodes.
During a GER episode, gastric acid flows out of the stomach and into the esophagus. In healthy people, this backflow is prevented by the esophageal sphincter, a circle-shaped muscle that sits at the top of the stomach and seals shut like a valve. In people with GERD, the esophageal sphincter is weaker and regularly fails to prevent stomach acid from flowing back into the esophagus.
Some of the most common symptoms associated with GERD include:
- Chest pain and burning
- Frequent coughing
- Voice issues
- Issues with swallowing
- Dental problems and erosion
There are multiple risk factors that can increase the chances of developing GERD. They include:
- Age – people over 50 years of age are at risk.
- Weight – obese people are more likely to develop GERD.
- Lifestyle choices – people who smoke are at an increased risk.
- Medication – taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAIDs) drugs also increases reflux risk. Benzodiazepines and calcium channel blockers can also worsen reflux.
How Do Doctors Typically Treat GERD?
The first line of treatment for GERD is to improve lifestyle factors. This includes losing weight (the most impactful lifestyle factor), removing dietary triggers, stopping smoking, avoiding large meals, and elevating the head while sleeping. For some people, this may be enough to resolve the worst GERD symptoms.
When lifestyle changes aren’t enough, doctors may recommend medication or surgery. Here’s what each consists of:
- GERD medicine – There are a couple types of medication used to treat GERD. They include H2 (histamine) blockers and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs).
H2 blockers work by targeting histamine receptors in the stomach lining and chemically interacting with them to shut down acid production. Stimulating histamine receptors in the stomach’s parietal cells encourages the release of stomach acid, but H2 blockers interfere with that stimulation. Side effects of H2 blockers include constipation, diarrhea, dry mouth and skin, and headaches. Serious side effects may include confusion, agitation, hallucinations, heartbeat irregularities and chest pains.
PPIs are recommended for severe GERD cases or for patients that don’t respond to H2 blockers. They work in a similar fashion to H2 blockers, as they target major acid production pathways and tell acid-producing cells to shut off the acid tap, so to speak. PPIs, like H2 blockers, may also cause constipation, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and headaches. However, they may also cause serious, even life-threatening side effects as well. Though uncommon, these serious side effects include renal (kidney) damage and disease.
- Surgery – In patients where medication is either ineffective or intolerable, surgery may be the next recommended course of action. There are a couple of options, including laparoscopic surgical treatments. In general, though, surgical options aim for the same thing. The objective is to strengthen the esophageal sphincter’s response to acid reflux. This may be done by either wrapping part of the stomach around the sphincter, or by creating tissue folds that reinforce the sphincter. In both cases, surgery is typically effective, but there are always risks with surgical procedures.
As there are risks involved with these treatment options, people looking for a natural alternative or adjunct therapy may attain relief with acupuncture.
How Acupuncture Can Provide Natural Relief from GERD and Acid Reflux
Acupuncture has been studied for its effects on GERD, and there are a few pieces of research that show this form of Chinese medicine may be efficacious. Though more research is needed, what does exist includes:
- A 2010 study published in the Chinese Journal of Integrated Medicine split 60 GERD patients into two groups. One received omeprazole and the other received daily acupuncture treatments (with the occasional break) for six weeks. Following the treatment period, the research team found that the group receiving acupuncture had an improved bile reflux response and experienced across-the-board improvement during symptom scoring. The effects were comparable to those found in the control group receiving omeprazole and were still present during the follow-up period at four weeks.
- A 2021 review published in Front Neuroscience that considered multiple studies on acupuncture and functional dyspepsia – a condition that is closely related to GERD. While the researchers noted that additional studies were needed, there was a noted positive effect on dyspepsia symptoms among patients who received acupuncture.
Again, more studies are needed, but researchers have already identified several reasons why acupuncture is effective in some patients. For example:
- Acupuncture needles may help modulate activity in the nervous system, which may reduce pain and help regulate digestive processes. This includes potentially improving gastrointestinal motility (the rate at which food moves through the GI system).
- Acupuncture appears to down-regulate visceral hypersensitivity, a condition characterized by increased pain sensitivity in the soft abdominal organs.
- Acupuncture appears to improve vagal tone, as well. The vagal nerve is a major neural pathway in the body and helps regulate many autonomous functions, including digestive functions.
- Acupuncture is known to reduce pain and inflammation locally by stimulating the body into releasing opioid-like compounds and other self-healing and regulating compounds. In effect, acupuncture helps the body heal itself.
As more research into acupuncture is completed, it’s likely that additional therapeutic mechanisms will be found that are associated with the practice.
If Provided by a Licensed Houston Practitioner, Acupuncture Can Be an Effective, Safe Treatment Option for Acid Reflux
GERD can be a frustrating condition to live with, especially for those with severe cases that don’t respond completely to treatment. Acupuncture may be an option for those patients, as well as anyone looking for a natural form of relief from acid reflux.
It’s highly recommended that patients seek out a licensed, experienced Houston acupuncturist for treatment. A licensed Houston practitioner has extensive training in targeting the right acupuncture points, ensuring cleanliness, and minimizing any discomfort during the process. A licensed Houston acupuncturist may also support acupuncture treatments with additional therapies, including herbal formulas.
GERD can be a literal pain in the chest, but there are treatment options available. Acupuncture is one of them, and emerging research suggests that it may be a promising choice for patients looking for natural relief from acid reflux.