By Amy Norton
A needle-free form of acupuncture may offer a new way to get at the heart of heartburn problems, a small study suggests.
Looking at a group 14 heartburn-free volunteers, Australian researchers found that electrical stimulation of an acupuncture point on the wrist cut the number of times a specific muscle in the esophagus "relaxed," which might protect against upset stomach.
This band of muscle, called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), surrounds the passage from the esophagus to the stomach. Temporary relaxations are normal and allow food to pass into the stomach. But when the LES is weak or relaxes inappropriately, stomach acids can churn up in the esophagus and cause heartburn symptoms.
Among the healthy volunteers, acupoint stimulation of a specific point on the wrist reduced LES relaxations by 40 percent. Ultimately, reducing LES relaxations stands as a potential way to keep stomach acids in their place, according to Dr. Richard H. Holloway of the University of Adelaide, the lead author of the new study.
Holloway said that LES relaxations have become "an area of great interest" in drug industry research. But his team's findings, published in the American Journal of Physiology-Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology, point to the potential of the 2,000-year-old practice of acupuncture.
The acupoint stimulation used in Holloway's study is a modern twist on the ancient procedure. In place of needles, acupoint uses electrodes to send a small electrical pulse to specific acupuncture points on the skin. According to traditional Chinese medicine, these points are connected to internal pathways that conduct energy throughout the body; stimulation of these points is thought to promote a healthy flow of energy.
No one knows for sure how acupuncture works, though a number of recent studies have confirmed that it may ease chronic pain and nausea. Some scientists speculate that acupuncture alters signals among nerve cells or affects the release of various chemicals of the central nervous system.
Acupuncture has long been used in traditional medicine to treat stomach ailments, Holloway said, but until now there had been no evidence that acupoint stimulation affects LES relaxations. Still, the reason for the LES effects is "completely unclear," Holloway said.
Indeed, Holloway and his colleagues had speculated that acupoint stimulation might prevent LES relaxations by affecting 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 LES relaxations.
Holloway described the findings as "very preliminary," in that they showed only that LES relaxations declined during acupoint stimulation. The remaining, and significant questions are whether the effects last once the procedure is over—and whether they will in fact prevent acid reflux.
An important next step, Holloway noted, will be to see whether acupoint stimulation reduced acid reflux after a meal. Despite the early promise, heartburn sufferers should hold off on making that acupuncture appointment just yet, Holloway said.