This 7th March marks the beginning of endometriosis awareness week and for 2016, this also coincides with acupuncture awareness week, an initiative led by the British Acupuncture Council. This presents a great opportunity for me to write about some of the research into acupuncture for endometriosis and to highlight some of the excellent work that’s been done by UK charities so far in raising the profile of this common and debilitating gynaecological condition.
What is Endometriosis?
Endometriosis is a gynaecological condition that affects 1 in 10 women of reproductive age. Endometriosis occurs when tissue normally found in the lining of the womb is found in other areas such as the ovaries or the inside of the abdomen. The most common symptoms are:
- painful periods,
- pain in the lower abdomen or the pelvis,
- pain during sex,
- bleeding between periods.
How can it be managed?
Symptoms of endometriosis can be managed with non-steroidal anti-inflammatories or with hormonal treatment such as the contraceptive pill. However, a large proportion of women feel that their pain management with conventional methods is not sufficient and as a result, many choose acupuncture as a way of better managing their pain, or in order to experience fewer side-effects.
What does some of the research say on acupuncture for endometriosis?
A group of Austrian researchers invited 101 women with endometriosis to take part in an acupuncture study. This study looked at two different methods of applying acupuncture for pain when used alongside conventional medicine. The two methods of applying acupuncture were:
- Method 1 – Specific Acupuncture: Needles applied at specific points traditionally used for pain in endometriosis.
- Method 2 – Non Specific Acupuncture: Needles applied at traditional acupuncture points which were not specifically used for endometriosis-related pain but which could be used for treating other conditions.
To join the study, women needed to report a moderate to severe level of pain. Most of the women joining the study reported regular use of pain-relief medication and had undergone at least one operation before joining the study. This suggests that the majority of participants had considered usual routes of care prior to joining this study.
Acupuncture treatments were carried out twice a week over 5 weeks, totalling 10 treatments. When researchers analysed the data, they found significant improvements in pain scores and in quality of life when participants were given specific acupuncture (Method 1). Use of analgesics reduced in both groups, but was found to be markedly improved only in the specific acupuncture group. The researchers concluded that acupuncture at specific points appeared to be an effective treatment for pain when used alongside conventional medication, but urged that further research is needed to confirm these promising findings.
What could this mean?
This study is interesting because it compares two different applications of acupuncture. This allowed the study to identify differences in the effects of acupuncture as practiced by traditional acupuncturists versus acupuncture being delivered by someone with little or no prior knowledge or experience of diagnosing according to Chinese medicine theories.
In addition, 5 women from the specific acupuncture group (Method 1) became pregnant, whilst 2 women from the non-specific acupuncture group (Method 2) became pregnant. Although this study was not specifically investigating effects on fertility, this could point to the possibility that traditional acupuncture has a beneficial effect on fertility for women with endometriosis. This is certainly my experience in the clinic and this study provides further insight by suggesting that acupuncture could be helpful for the disruptive hormonal and inflammatory states in endometriosis and which, in turn, could promote a more receptive environment for conception.
As endometriosis effects almost 10% of women it is important that we continue to raise awareness of the condition and fund research into how it can be treated. Endometriosis UK are currently running a petition to call on the UK government to devise a national strategy for endometriosis – please show your support by clicking here and signing the petition.
If you’re interested in using a different approach to pain management in endometriosis and want to find out more about acupuncture, please get in touch and I’d be happy to advise you further.
PS. If you’ve been diagnosed with endometriosis, don’t suffer in silence. I can highly recommend the following endometriosis charity organisations which have plenty of information and sources of support:
Rubi-Klein K, Kucera-Sliutz E, Nissel H, Bijak M, Stockenhuber D, Fink M, Wolkenstein E. Is acupuncture in addition to conventional medicine effective as pain treatment for endometriosis? A randomised controlled cross-over trial. European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology 2010;153(1):90-93.