Originally published on: April 6th, 2017. Last modified on July 15th, 2021

Traditional acupuncture is a healthcare method based on ancient principles which go back nearly two thousand years. It is believed that the main basis for treatment is that illness and pain occur when the body’s qi, or vital energy, cannot flow freely. There can be many reasons for this; emotional and physical stress, poor nutrition, infection or injury are among the most common.

Traditionally, acupuncture uses ultra-fine sterile needles which are inserted into specific acupuncture points on the body. The aim of this is to re-establish the free flow of qi in the body, to restore equilibrium and trigger the body’s natural healing response.

What can it treat?

An expanding awareness of the unwanted side effects of pharmaceutical treatments has led to an increased use of acupuncture as a contemporary health care option.

Acupuncture for Bladder and Bowel Conditions

Acupuncture can be used to treat bladder and bowel conditions such as urinary and faecal incontinence and IBS by targeting certain points in these areas.

A research study in 2009 indicated the use of manual acupuncture to specific points in the lower abdomen; spine and leg have beneficial effects on neuro modulation of pain and bowel control especially on rectal function and anal sphincter control for up to 3 months following acupuncture treatment.

Acupuncture for Overactive Bladder

Equally, acupuncture stimulation of the sacral vertebra has a suppressive action on patients with overactive bladders resulting in stress and urge incontinence. Acupuncture to the sacrum improved symptoms of nocturnal enuresis, urge incontinence and stress incontinence. When applied to spinally injured patients suffering with urge and stress incontinence, acupuncture reduced reflex bladder activity, providing a scientific foundation to clinical treatment and point selection for the treatment of urinary urge and stress incontinence.

Acupuncture for IBS

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is one of the most common gastrointestinal disorders in Western society, affecting around 15% of the population, especially young adults. The cause(s) of irritable bowel syndrome and effective treatment(s) have remained elusive and many patients fail to find adequate relief from conventional therapies. It is claimed that acupuncture is effective for a majority of patients with IBS, but there is mixed data to support this.

The therapeutic effects of electro acupuncture (EA) on IBS have therefore not been established although demonstrate significant changes in symptoms of bloating and stool consistency after 4 weeks of acupuncture.

The outcome of most therapeutic intervention, pharmaceutical, mechanical or cognitive, remains controversial and although electro acupuncture may improve pain and distension in IBS, altering gastric motility and function, more robust studies are needed to establish the therapeutic role of using EA in IBS management.

However, it is only fair to report that over one third of patients who receive acupuncture for IBS gain significant improvement in symptoms.

Is Acupuncture safe?

Non-serious adverse events of acupuncture are remarkably low. Non-serious adverse events, such as fainting, local needle pain and exacerbation of existing symptoms, occur at a frequency of 10 to 100 per 10,000 treatments. Serious adverse events and fatalities appear to be rare.

A clear conclusion from such an evidence-based approach is that acupuncture remains safe in competent hands.

Any acupuncture practice must be provided by practitioners who have been trained to a standard that is recognised by accreditation bodies such as universities or registered bodies. Members of the British Acupuncture Council (BAcC), British Medical Acupuncture Council (BMAS) and the Acupuncture Association of Chartered physiotherapists (AACP) are recognised as achieving a level of safety and clinical knowledge to offer safe, effective acupuncture.

When looking for recommended practitioners patients should be guided by these levels of scrutiny and professional standing.

Further Information

You may find the British Acupuncture Council website a useful resource.

For further information and more detailed advice about IBS and how to manage it, please contact The IBS Network who are the national charity for people who suffer with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Please visit their website at or telephone their helpline on 0114 272 32 53 (9 am-4.30 pm Mon-Fri).