Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic gastrointestinal condition characterized by altered bowel habits and abdominal pain and discomfort. It is a common, costly, and difficult to treat disorder that also impairs health-related quality of life and work productivity. Some pharmacological (i.e. drug) therapies for treating IBS have modest benefits and a risk for side effects, and therefore, it is important to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of non-drug therapies, including acupuncture. One problem with trials in IBS is that placebo effects are often seen in IBS treatment. Placebo effects are improvements in symptoms that are due to patient beliefs in a particular treatment rather than the specific biological effects of the treatment.
This review included 17 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) including a total of 1806 participants. Five RCTs (411 participants) compared acupuncture to sham acupuncture for the treatment of IBS. Sham acupuncture is a procedure in which the patient believes he or she is receiving true acupuncture. However, in sham acupuncture the needles either do not penetrate the skin or are not placed at the correct places on the body, or both. Sham acupuncture is intended to be a placebo for true acupuncture. The sham-controlled studies were well designed and of high methodological quality. These studies tested the effects of acupuncture on IBS symptom severity or health-related quality of life. None of these RCTs found acupuncture to be better than sham acupuncture for either of these two outcomes, and pooling the results of these RCTs also did not show acupuncture to be better than sham acupuncture. Evidence from four Chinese language comparative effectiveness trials showed acupuncture to be superior to two antispasmodic drugs (pinaverium bromide and trimebutine maleate), both of which provide a modest benefit for the treatment of IBS, although neither is approved for treatment of IBS in the United States. It is unclear whether or not the greater benefits of acupuncture reported by patients in these unblinded studies are due entirely to patients’ greater expectations of improvement from acupuncture than drugs or preference for acupuncture over drug therapy. There was one side effect (i.e. fainting in one patient) associated with acupuncture in the nine trials that reported side effects, although relatively small sample sizes limit the usefulness of this safety data.