No-Needle Acupuncture for Diabetic Tummies

Diabetic gastroparesis symptoms may be eased by electrical stimulation at acupuncture points

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Diabetes can affect many different parts of your body. Your stomach is no exception. A little electrical jolt could ease a serious stomach problem in people with diabetes.

Electrical stimulation at certain acupuncture points may relieve symptoms of gastroparesis - a common complication of diabetes in which the stomach has trouble emptying its contents.

"Take the stairs instead of the elevator."

For their study, Jiande Chen, PhD, of the University of Texas Medical Branch, and colleagues used a watch-sized device to see if electrical stimulation eased the symptoms of gastroparesis in patients with diabetes.

People with diabetes generally have blood sugar levels that are higher than normal. When blood sugar rises too high, nerves and blood vessels can become damaged. Gastroparesis occurs when a specific nerve in the digestive tract becomes damaged.

About 10 to 15 percent of diabetes patients in the United States have gastroparesis - a condition which can cause nausea, vomiting, feeling full too quickly while eating, abdominal pain and bloating.

Dr. Chen and colleagues found that electrical stimulation using the watch-sized device - which was worn on the wrist or leg for 2 hours after lunch and dinner - led to significant improvements in five out of nine gastroparesis symptoms.

"For decades, there was the thought and hope that like the heart, the stomach too might benefit from an implanted pacemaker that stimulates it to contract and empty food to the intestine," explained Steven Kussin, MD, FACP, author of Doctor, Your Patient Will See You Now, Gaining the Upper Hand in Your Medical Care and a gastroenterology expert who was not involved in the study.

"Gastric electrical stimulation (GES) consists of the delivery of electrical current by means of electrodes placed within the muscle of the stomach wall which are then connected to a stimulator device. This requires surgery although some centers are investigating endoscopic placement of the stimulator electrodes.

Interestingly, the motor function of the stomach is much more complex than that of the heart. And the clinical results confirm this. Not only are the improvements at best modest, the complication rate is high.

First, up to 20 percent of patients develop more or less severe complications - sometimes lethal - related to implantation of the device and 13 percent of patients are non-responders," said Dr. Kussin.

Instead of putting patients through this complex process involving surgery and high rates of complications, Dr. Chen and colleagues wanted to see if an easier process (i.e. electrical stimulation at acupuncture points) could lead to improvement of gastroparesis.

Their study involved 26 diabetes patients with gastroparesis. Of these, 18 completed the study.

Patients wore the watch-sized electrical stimulation device for 4 weeks and wore a fake device for another 4 weeks. The order in which patients wore the real or fake device was random so they would not know when they were receiving the real treatment or not.

A 4-week treatment of electrical stimulation led to:

  • 29.7 percent improvement in nausea
  • 39.3 percent improvement in vomiting
  • 21.4 percent improvement in abdominal fullness
  • 20.6 percent improvement in bloating
  • 31.1 percent improvement in dry heaving (retching)

According to Dr. Chen, these improvements suggest this home-based, non-invasive electric stimulation therapy may be a practical and effective way to treat gastroparesis.

"Although this is a small study, the results are noteworthy because the side-effects and the cost are low," said Dr. Chen.

He also noted the stimulation device is not on the market yet.

"This report - which presents a minimally invasive way of delivering electric current to acupuncture points that have traditionally been used for stomach ailments - has been around for a while. The results have been variable in small studies," said Dr. Kussin.

"This study is also small, consisting of only 18 patients. Patients' self-reported symptoms of gastroparesis decreased by 20 to 40 percent. Although this is good news for a minimally invasive, safe and low cost intervention, there was no mention as to whether these improvements in symptoms led to an improvement in nutrition and diabetic control," he said.

"There can be no doubt that a safe, low cost option like acupuncture electric stimulation to the skin should be studied in larger populations. For now, it should be considered experimental," Dr. Kussin said.

The research was presented at the 77th Annual Scientific Meeting of the American College of Gastroenterology. As such, the study has yet to be reviewed by a body of peers.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
October 24, 2012
Last Updated:
October 29, 2012