Needling nausea away

By Michael Cote

Most people would agree with Chinese medical theory that the digestive system is moving in the wrong direction when you’re throwing up.

Instead of moving up, the contents of the stomach should move down.

This upset could happen for a variety of reasons such as contaminated food, side effects of medication, or even from heart problems and emotions.

Acupuncture can get your digestion moving in the right direction by:

  • regulating the electrical impulses that control the muscles of the digestive tract
  • modulating the actions of the nervous system responsible for automatic bodily functions
  • regulating vasopressin, a hormone that can cause nausea and vomiting
  • suppressing muscle contractions involved in vomiting 
  • regulating activities in the brain responsible for balance called the vestibular system

Research on acupuncture for nausea and vomiting typically focuses on the point Pericardium 6 (PC6), located on the palm side of the wrist. Treatments in acupuncture research typically ignore traditional diagnostics before selecting acupuncture points, yielding a fairly generic treatment.

Despite the lack of an appropriate diagnosis or the utilization of other points for restoring homeostasis, the research still says acupuncture is effective and is comparable to pharmaceutical drugs for post-operative and chemotherapy induced nausea and vomiting.

A number of studies show the effectiveness for treating nausea and vomiting:

  • The Consensus Guidelines for the Management of Postoperative Nausea and Vomiting recommends acupuncture and point stimulation for prophylactic and treatment strategies based on a meta-analyses of 40 articles including 4,858 subjects. Stimulation of PC6 along with 10 other acupuncture modalities reduces nausea, vomiting, and the need for rescue anti-emetics compared with placebos.
  • The Acupuncture Evidence Project: Comparative Literature Review by Stephan Janz and John MacDonald, rated acupuncture for chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting (CINV) effective; and a systematic review of seven acupuncture and six acupressure randomized control trials (RCTs) found that acupuncture reduced the frequency of acute vomiting and the dose of rescue medication, yet it did not reduce acute nausea severity or frequency compared with control groups.
  • An updated systematic review by Garcia and others concluded that acupuncture is an appropriate referral option for CINV.
  • Additionally, systematic reviews and meta-analyses on acupuncture and acupressure for postoperative nausea and vomiting (PONV) concluded that both acupuncture and acupressure reduced the number of cases of early nausea and vomiting for up to 24 hours post-surgery.

I think that much better results happen when there is a correct diagnosis before administering any form of medicine. Rather than saying only one point is useful for nausea and vomiting, we want to figure out the underlying cause first.

In many cases of nausea and vomiting, it’s a stomach problem, but in Chinese medicine, we also think of the kidneys, large and small intestines, gallbladder, liver, lungs, and heart as playing a role. Other considerations are side effects from medications.

Instead of treating nausea (the symptom), we want to restore homeostasis (the cause). In Chinese medicine, we use the words Yin and Yang to describe homeostasis.

If your body is too cold, we need to warm you up and if your body is too hot, we need to cool you down. Once we know which organ systems are involved and if you’re too hot or cold, we then select an appropriate treatment strategy.

Take Roger, for example, who came to me complaining of a lump in his throat. He had esophageal cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Roger had a lot of stress and difficulty swallowing. He felt nauseous when he managed to eat; his pulses felt wiry and rapid; his tongue was trembling and red with fissures.

I diagnosed Roger with “Plum-pit Qi caused by Liver Yin deficiency and internal phlegm.”

I did a series weekly of acupuncture treatments and once he finished his chemotherapy and radiation treatments, I prescribed the herbal formulas Ban Xia Hou Po Tang with Jia Wei Xiao Yao San.

I also recommended Roger avoid greasy and rich foods, and to learn to deal with stress better. One way that helped me deal with stress was reading Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.

There are also counsellors, psychiatrists, and psychologists who can help.

After a month, Roger reported he felt much better, and, after two months, the lumpy feeling vanished and he was able to eat comfortably. Now, I only occasionally see Roger when his stress levels rise and he feels like the lump in his throat is returning.

Roger is a great example of how acupuncture can help you to manage stress and complement other treatments you may be undergoing.

Acupuncture is a safe and effective treatment that can promote health and better functioning of the body.

Michael Côté, R.TCM.P, is a registered practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine.​ He can be reached at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St. — (250) 861-8863; [email protected].

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