New research released by the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor suggests that transcutaneous electrical acustimulation (TEA) at acupoint ST36 (see below image) may improve functional constipation. The mechanism here is through delivering weak electrical pulses to acupressure points near peripheral nodes via electrodes placed onto the skin.
Led by Dr. Jiande Chen, the team of investigators ran an acute study on 53 adults with constipation, treating them with TEA at either the target acupoint ST36 or at “sham” points (non-acupoints).
Participants in both groups were then evaluated for rectal sensation and gastrointestinal (GI) motility.
What is rectal sensation?
Rectal sensation is an important bodily process that occurs in response to the intermittent filling of the rectum with stool over time. Perception of rectal fullness occurs and the internal anal spinchter will relax, leading to a bowel movement.
Compared to the control group, those in the experiment group (ie. those treated with TEA at acupoint ST36) demonstrated increased spontaneous bowel movements (3.72 vs 2.00 per week) and reported increased quality of life. TEA lowered the threshold of sensation in response to the urge of defecation and increased parasympathetic activity.
What is parasympathetic activity?
The autonomic nervous system is broken down into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic response is sometimes called the “fight or flight” mode, while the parasympathetic response is known as the “rest and digest” state, and controls the defecation reflex.
Dr. Chen explained that his team’s research suggests that TEA at ST36 can be effectively used to treat constipation by improving rectal sensation, a finding that has also been reported in other therapies. He believes there is a future where it can be self-administered at home as a therapy for constipation patients.
I suffer from constipation. How should I evaluate this research?
The results are promising. However, Dr. Chen cautions that this therapy remains investigational as of now, and the next step is to keep testing his hypothesis through performing studies with larger sample sizes. For now, stay posted on new developments in this space.