Acupuncture treatment may be beneficial in alleviating some of the chronic pain associated with endometriosis, an often-misunderstood disease that affects people of reproductive age. Endometriosis occurs when endometrial tissue is found outside the uterus. It may include unpleasant symptoms such as digestive distress and heavy bleeding, as well as severe cramping and abdominal pain that’s more bothersome than typical menstrual cramps. On occasion, the pain can be debilitating. The presence of endometrial tissue may also lead to complications such as inflammation and scar tissue (also called adhesions) as well as infertility.
Many MyEndometriosisTeam members have had positive experiences mixing traditional Chinese medicine treatments such as acupuncture with more conventional medical recommendations. “Acupuncture should be used in conjunction with another treatment as it doesn’t heal the root, it just helps provide some relief. It may take a few sessions before you notice a true difference, but it’s worth it,” said one member.
Because the tissue is affected by monthly menstrual cycle changes, medical treatment of endometriosis may include hormonal medications such as oral contraceptives, progestin-only medications, and gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) agonists. These medications may help slow or stop the growth of endometrial tissue. If the pain intensity is severe, such as around menstruation, analgesics (pain relievers) may be taken. In some cases, laparoscopic surgery may be recommended.
Many MyEndometriosisTeam members are grateful to have acupuncture as a potential option in their treatment toolbox. “Acupuncture works miracles,” raved one member, while another said, “I’ve been getting acupuncture four times a week for two months, and it’s the only thing that has worked to relieve my endometriosis. It’s group acupuncture so it’s more affordable — it changed my life!” Note that acupuncture may not always be covered by health insurance, but some acupuncturists offer sliding-scale fees or community acupuncture group settings, where clients are treated simultaneously in a large room and the cost tends to be fairly low.
Another member spoke about the importance of finding a reputable practitioner and the potential need to try a few different people. “Here’s a vote for finding a good acupuncturist, just like you have to find a good doctor, physical therapist, plumber, or lawyer. You have to keep looking until you find a good one,” the member said.
Acupuncturists will often recommend that someone try at least five sessions before determining whether the treatment is effective, and many people have weekly appointments, which can be tough to fit into a busy schedule. Still, many people consider acupuncture a worthwhile investment in self-care. “Acupuncture used to help me years ago with my pain, but I just didn’t have the time to keep going with work and small children — I am making time now,” said one member.
Part of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is a method of treatment that dates back more than 2,500 years. Acupuncture involves placing slender needles into different areas of the skin (these areas are called acupoints). Acupuncture is used for pain and stress management, infertility, and a variety of other diseases and conditions. In traditional Chinese medicine, the acupoints are considered meridians (or pathways), and the needles help to keep one’s chi, or energy flow, in balance. In Western medicine, it’s generally believed that using needles to stimulate muscles and connective tissue helps increase the body’s ability to fight pain.
Different types of acupuncture use various methods to stimulate the acupoints. Besides the needling described above, methods include the application of heat (also called moxibustion), suction (cupping), massage (acupressure), and electromagnetic impulses. These methods may occasionally be combined.
Acupuncture is commonly used to treat endometriosis-related pain, and some studies have found it is effective in this capacity. In a collection of three different studies following 99 women with diagnosed endometriosis, researchers found that subjects reported an overall decrease in pain intensity and the amount of pain-relieving medication taken after receiving acupuncture. Subjects also indicated an increase in their health-related quality of life, which included factors such as psychological well-being and perceived stress level.
Although research on the effects of acupuncture is somewhat limited, some studies have looked at its influence on other symptoms of endometriosis. In general, acupuncture is thought to be beneficial because of its ability to increase the amount of blood that flows to the uterine lining. It may also help improve the functioning of the ovaries and follicles.
The data on whether acupuncture helps improve the chances of pregnancy is mixed. One clinical trial in the British Medical Journal found that when acupuncture was given along with an embryo transfer, there was a greater chance of both pregnancy as well as a live birth. Other studies, however, showed no significant difference, and others even showed that recipients of acupuncture were less likely to become pregnant.
Although how it works is not completely understood, acupuncture has been shown to help with a variety of digestive issues, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and postoperative nausea and vomiting. It is believed to have a protective effect on the gastrointestinal (GI) barrier, which helps protect the body from harmful bacteria and also help modulate the brain-gut axis, which is the link between the central nervous system (CNS) and the enteric nervous system (ENS) found in the GI tract. It is believed that each of these systems influences the other — so digestive problems may lead to poor moods and emotional issues, and feelings of anxiety and depression may cause GI symptoms such as diarrhea.
Research is also fairly limited on how acupuncture can help chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), but in one clinical trial, participants with CFS reported improved quality of life after receiving treatment. MyEndometriosisTeam members also report having success in using needle therapy to help alleviate the tiredness that can accompany endometriosis, saying, “Acupuncture has been a miracle” in helping with what another member describes as “crushing fatigue.”
Acupuncture needles are sterile and regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Practitioners discard the needles after use.
It’s important to find an experienced acupuncturist. The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine offers board certification for acupuncture practitioners, as well as a tool for finding certified therapists by location. When performed by a trained therapist, acupuncture tends to be safe, with few negative consequences. Commonly reported side effects include dizziness as well as pain or bruising at the needle side. More serious adverse events — collapsed lung, spinal cord injury, skin infection, and organ puncture — are very rare.
More studies need to be done regarding the efficacy of acupuncture on endometriosis, especially comparing various methods and the effects of targeting different acupuncture points. However, both research and anecdotal evidence seem to suggest that acupuncture may help alleviate some of the symptoms, especially when used along with more conventional medical treatments. That said, acupuncture doesn’t work for everyone. “I tried it for about six months, but I didn’t notice a difference,” said one member.
Because acupuncture has few side effects, it may be worth discussing with your doctor and exploring as an option. At the very least, acupuncture may help lower stress levels, which can help you feel that life overall is more manageable. One member reported a marked decrease in anxiety, saying, “Each session lasted an hour and helped me feel the most relaxed I’ve felt in years. I realized that I’ve had less cramping since I started and that my body doesn’t feel so tense anymore. It has also helped a lot with my stress.”
MyEndometriosisTeam is a social network of 118,000 people who suffer from endometriosis. Members and their loved ones can share their experiences, challenges, and victories as they offer each other support.
Have you tried acupuncture as part of your endometriosis regimen? Or are you curious about getting started, but looking for more firsthand information? Share your experiences and questions in the comments below or on MyEndometriosisTeam.