April is Irritable Bowel Syndrome Awareness Month, and the disease can be treated with alternative medicine that complements traditional medicine, according to an expert in Chinese Medicine.

The National Institutes of Health defines IBS as a group of symptoms causing pain or discomfort in the abdomen and forcing changes in bowel movement patterns. Doctors call IBS a functional gastrointestinal disorder because the GI tract behaves in an abnormal way without visual signs of damage from a disease. IBS afflicts 10 percent to 15 percent of Americans, NIH reported.

Of those, only 5 percent to 7 percent are diagnosed.

IBS may have symptoms of constipation, diarrhea or both, said Tom Elman, acupuncture physician and owner of Jade Tree Wellness Center in St. Petersburg, Fla. Patients might feel bloated and gassy. In Chinese Medicine, the spleen's energy controls digestion, but with IBS, the spleen’s energy is weakened. Frequently with IBS, liver Qi has become stagnant and as a result, the liver “overacts” on the spleen, aggravating the symptoms. Patients with IBS might be experiencing too much stress in their lives. Stress commonly affects both the spleen's and the liver's energies, he added. Western medicine also has linked stress to poor digestion and IBS discomfort.

Acupuncture addresses issue with spleen's energy

When patients come to the Jade Tree Wellness Center, Elman treats them with acupuncture. The treatment fixes the problems they have with their spleen and liver, but Elman also counsels them on proper nutrition and reducing stress. He also provides patients with herbal remedies.

These treatments complement the acupuncture. In addition, the acupuncture and herbal remedies help other medicines and treatments work more effectively, he said.

"Acupuncture is ideally used with other treatments," said Dr. Jeanine Blackman, who is medical director of the University of Maryland Center for Integrative Medicine.

"Even in China, the therapy is never used on its own."

How it works is a mystery

Although acupuncture physicians know that it works, they haven't determined exactly how. They suspect that acupuncture needles stimulate electromagnetic signals in the body. These signals either encourage the release of pain-killing chemicals or nudge the body's natural healing systems into action, she said.