By Qineng Tan, L.Ac., Ph.D. & Xiaomei Cai, L.Ac., Ph.D.
Abdominal pain that flares up, persistent diarrhea and stomach pain, bloody stool? These can be signs of Crohn’s Disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects the gastrointestinal tract. Along with ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease is a type of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). Acupuncture and TCM herbs can help reduce the inflammation that causes IBD symptoms.
About 3 million people in the U.S. are living with Crohn’s disease; it can affect people of all ages and backgrounds. Crohn’s symptoms sometimes begin to show up in childhood or during the teenage years, but most people are diagnosed with Crohn’s in early adulthood. As it does tend to run in families, it is believed that Crohn’s is caused partially by genetic makeup, but even if you have a close family member who has Crohn’s that doesn’t necessarily mean you will get it.
Crohn’s disease is a type of autoimmune disease. In autoimmune disorders, the body’s immune system, which is designed to fight potentially dangerous pathogens, mistakenly attacks normal cells or tissues. In the case of Crohn’s disease, inflammation is caused by the body’s immune system launching an attack against bacteria that are normally present in the gastrointestinal tract to help with digestion. As with other autoimmune diseases (Lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Multiple Sclerosis (MS), fibromyalgia, Type 1 diabetes, Graves’ disease, hyperthyroidism, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, etc.), the causes are not fully understood by medical science.
Symptoms of Crohn’s disease are similar to ulcerative colitis symptoms; both are related to chronic inflammation in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The difference is the specific location. Ulcerative colitis only affects the colon, or the large intestine. Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract, from the mouth, all the way through the stomach, small intestine and large intestine, to the anal area.
IBDs create inflammation that causes pain, cramping, and compromises the healthy functioning of portions of the GI tract. Over time, Crohn’s can cause so much damage to the tissues of the intestines and other organs that surgeries are required to repair it.
Treatment of Crohn’s aims not only to reduce symptoms of nausea, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, but to prevent this kind of damage. Conventional medicine for Crohn’s can help control the disease to some extent. TCM methods, used as an alternative or adjunct to pharmacological treatment for Crohn’s, can relieve symptoms and help to restore healthy digestion and bowel function.
Acupuncture and other TCM treatments such as moxibustion have been shown to help patients with Crohn’s disease by reducing inflammation, allowing for the repair and healing of damaged tissues in the GI tract, and reducing IBD symptoms like nausea and joint pain.
Top 5 Types of Crohn’s Disease
Crohn’s Disease is classified according to where in the GI tract inflammation is causing pain and problems.
Ileocolitis – affects the area where the small intestine connects to the large intestine, causing diarrhea and pain in the lower right abdomen.
Ileitis – affects just the lower part of the small intestine, causing diarrhea and abdominal cramps, weight loss, and possibly fistulas developing between sections of the intestine.
Gastroduodenal – affects the connection of the stomach to the small intestine, causing more upper GI symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite.
Jejunoileitis – affects the upper part of the small intestine, causing cramping and diarrhea
Granulomatous Colitis – Crohn’s that affects the colon area, causing diarrhea, rectal bleeding, bloody stool, and possible anal fistula or fissure. Skin rashes and joint pain are also more commonly seen with this type of Crohn’s disease.
Top 10 Symptoms of Crohn’s Disease
As with other autoimmune disorders, Crohn’s disease causes flares that come and go. You may have periods of time when everything seems fine, then some stress or change in your environment can trigger a flare up of IBD symptoms. Each person will have their own experience of Crohn’s symptoms:
- Diarrhea, explosive diarrhea, urgent need to go
- Stomach pain, lower abdominal pain, epigastric pain, stomach ache
- Stomach cramps, abdominal cramps, cramping
- Rectal bleeding, bleeding from anus, bloody stool
- Constipation, feeling like you can’t go or you still have to go even after you’ve gone
- Fatigue, tired all the time, chronic fatigue, low energy
- Poor appetite, not hungry
- Mouth sores, cold sores around mouth
- Red eyes, watery eyes, blurred vision, dry eyes, eye pain, sensitivity to light
- Swollen joints, joint pain, joint inflammation, colitic arthritis
When it shows up early in life, Crohn’s disease can affect a child’s growth and development. In adults, Crohn’s can cause weight loss and anemia. The chronic inflammation of the GI tract and persistent diarrhea associated with Crohn’s can impede the normal absorption of nutrients from food. Fevers, anemia, vitamin deficiencies, dehydration, and electrolyte imbalances can all become concerns for someone with Crohn’s.
Other potentially related problems can include: kidney stones or other kidney problems, urinary problems, and inflammation of the bile ducts (pericholangitis).
More serious complications of Crohn’s involve tissue damage in the gastrointestinal tract, creating open sores or ulcers. An anal fissure is when there are tears in the rectal tissue, causing bleeding from the anus. A fistula develops when tissue breaks down between sections of the intestine, or between the intestine and the bladder, or the rectal area and the vagina. A stricture occurs when a section of the intestine becomes so inflamed that the passage becomes narrowed or blocked by scar tissue. Many people with Crohn’s disease end up having surgery to help remove these blockages, also called stenosis, due to bowel stricture, or to repair fistulas that have developed in the intestines.
Diagnosis and Medical Treatment of Crohn’s Disease
Again, as with many autoimmune diseases, it can be difficult to get a clear diagnosis for Crohn’s or IBD. Many people will suffer with stomach pain and diarrhea for a long time without realizing that something deeper is going on, and there is no simple, single test to show that you have Crohn’s. If blood tests and stool tests indicate that there is no other type of infection causing the symptoms, then colonoscopy and/or endoscopy, ultrasound or CT imaging can be used so that doctors can see where the inflammation is and where the ulcerative pain is centered.
Medicine like Imodium is commonly used to help reduce the severity of diarrhea. Immunosuppressant medications, immunomodulators, or monoclonal antibodies may be prescribed to help block the immune responses causing the inflammation. Corticosteroids are often used to help reduce inflammation. These medications, used in combination, can help to reduce symptoms of Crohn’s. However, these drugs can have serious side effects. Biologics can increase the risk of serious respiratory infections and may increase the risk of certain cancers. Corticosteroids can contribute to bone loss (osteoporosis) and cause swelling in other parts of the body. Immunosuppressants can stress the liver and pancreas.
Can Acupuncture Help Crohn’s Disease?
TCM treatments have been proven to be effective for helping to reduce inflammation and relieve pain for many types of conditions, including autoimmune disorders that can be difficult to treat with conventional medicine. TCM works well to help bring relief to people with autoimmune diseases because acupuncture and herbs work upon both the physiological and emotional aspects of the illness. Crohn’s flare ups can be triggered by stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues or strong emotions. Acupuncture can help to relieve stress and worry, so that they are less likely to feed into physical symptoms.
Acupuncture and moxibustion can help improve symptoms of diarrhea, stomach cramps, and epigastric pain. Through using these safe healing modalities, acupuncture practitioners are able to help people with bloated stomach, IBS symptoms, and nausea. Acupuncture treatment can also positively affect the vagus nerve in the brain, which plays an important role both in the functioning of the immune system and the parasympathetic nervous system that controls the action of the entire GI tract. Acupuncture can also positively impact the microbial bacteria that reside in the intestines, bringing them closer to normal levels.
A trial study that compared Crohn’s patients treated with acupuncture and moxibustion for 12 weeks with patients who received “sham acupuncture.” The patients who had real treatment showed significant improvement of symptoms over those in the control group.
A study to discover how electro-acupuncture treatment affects the brain-gut connection in patients with Crohn’s showed that acupuncture and moxibustion had a positive impact on activity in the hippocampus and vagus nerve areas of the brain.
Another study that looked at the chemical composition of intestinal mucosa found that acupuncture treatment helped improve the health of the lining of the intestines and reduced inflammation.
Acupuncture Near Me for Crohn’s Disease in Santa Monica, CA
Living with Crohn’s symptoms can be seriously debilitating. Chronic diarrhea and stomach pain can feel like they’re taking over your whole life. It is possible to manage Crohn’s disease symptoms without negative side effects. If you or someone you know is suffering with an IBD, or possibly an autoimmune disorder, or more than one autoimmune disease, it is worth trying TCM methods to see if they work for you.
*This article is for education from the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine only. The education provided by this article is not approved by FDA to diagnose, prevent, treat and cure human diseases. It should not stop you from consulting with your physician for your medical conditions. Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on Qi, which is an invisible force that usually cannot be observed by modern science. Because science focuses on testing ideas about the natural world with evidence obtained through observation, these aspects of acupuncture can’t be studied by science. Therefore acupuncture and Chinese herbs are often not supported by double-blind, randomized trials, and they are considered alternative medicine therapies in the United States.