As a new year unfolds, many people embark on the tradition of setting resolutions or making commitments to transform their lives through goals focused on health, wellness, and personal growth. For people with an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, self-care has to play an important role in our lives throughout the year. In my two decades of living with Crohn’s disease, I’ve navigated the challenges of IBD by constantly seeking ways to enhance my well-being beyond medical treatments. While I’ve explored and found benefit from various complementary treatments in recent years, one of the ways that I initially shifted my mind-body focus was through exercise, including running half-marathons and taking barre classes. Both became part of my daily routine, along with a focus on nutrition and cross-training. Over time I began exploring complementary alternative medicine (CAM).
CAM is the term used for any medical and healthcare systems, practices, or products that are not considered standard medical care but are used alongside conventional care. CAM is classified into five major categories of practice: whole medical systems, mind-body techniques, biologically based practices, manipulative and body-based therapy, and energy therapies.
More research is needed on the role of CAM in IBD, although some studies show that it can control symptoms, ease pain, improve quality of life, and improve the overall attitude toward health. Some therapies may even have positive effects on the immune system. According to a review published in June 2023 in Complementary Therapies in Medicine, acupuncture has a positive therapeutic impact on IBD and can regulate inflammatory factors in people with IBD.
In this article, I will share some of the complementary alternative therapies I’ve utilized to help me manage life with an IBD and offer ways for patients to seek out alternative therapies. Be sure to talk to your physician before beginning any complementary alternative therapy to make sure it is healthy and safe for the management of your IBD.
5 Integrative Approaches to IBD
I began acupuncture in 2020 for a multitude of medical reasons related to a Crohn’s disease flare that was occurring as the COVID-19 pandemic began and would later lead to surgical intervention. While I knew people with IBD commonly sought out acupuncture as adjunctive therapy, I hadn’t realized the benefits it could offer me in light of the high anxiety I was facing during the global pandemic and my Crohn’s disease flare. Improvement of symptoms as well as mental and psychological health are two connected parameters of quality of life for people with IBD. Acupuncture helped regulate my overall bowel habits, which significantly varied day to day, and reduced inflammation and abdominal pain. My anxiety and sleeping habits were disrupted by the pandemic, too, particularly in the first year, and acupuncture helped regulate this. Not only have I found benefits for my Crohn’s disease through acupuncture but my overall well-being has improved significantly given the benefits of acupuncture for nervous system function.
2. Reiki and Qigong
Through my acupuncturist’s practice, I was introduced to both reiki and qigong. During a reiki session, my reiki master uses gentle hand movements lightly over my body (but without touch) to guide the flow of energy throughout my body. In areas where I may have pain or inflammation, for example, the reiki master will focus their time there to shift energy that has become stagnant. After a reiki session, I experience a shift in energy that flows through my body. Because there is such a strong mind-gut connection, I leave with a feeling of peace, security, and well-being after a session. Initially I was hesitant to start reiki, and as my reiki master later shared with me, she knew I wasn’t in the mindset. But once I was finally open to it, I’ve found such a benefit. In my opinion, trying CAM when you’re mentally prepared is best!
Qigong involves using exercises to optimize energy within the body and becomes a moving meditation with physical movement aligned to breath work. It helps one quiet the mind, feel emotions, and ultimately relax the body. In my limited experience with qigong, I’ve been unable to calm my mind enough to find value, but I may consider it again in the future. Given the energetic correlation for both reiki and qigong, I believe that the individual has to be in the proper mindset to be open to understanding these practices and has to find an accredited complementary medicine practitioner. As with all adjunctive therapy in IBD, it’s worth trying to determine potential fit and benefit for your individual mind and body.
3. Pelvic Physical Therapy
After an ileocecectomy in 2020 and an extended hospitalization, I had a longer recovery than I expected, and I was limited in movement, leading to recurring episodes of constipation. I tried pelvic physical therapy, a form of manual therapy that focuses specifically on the pelvic floor, which includes the muscles that support the urinary and reproductive tracts. Therapy includes internal work as well as specific exercises depending on the individual. I hadn’t realized the number of ways in which it can benefit people with IBD. In my case, I had already had multiple abdominal surgeries, which caused significant scar tissue development, so the hands-on treatment from my therapist worked to prevent scarring from forming or worsening. IBD affects the entire pelvic floor, and this therapy can help people with IBD with constipation, urgency, bowel control, fecal incontinence, and pain. Pelvic physical therapy is customized for each individual, and after two years of consistent therapy, it changed my bowel habits forever. Given the proven benefits seen from pelvic PT, I strongly recommend it to people with IBD.
4. Massage Therapy
I’ve had the privilege to have access to care with my IBD healthcare providers as well as through an integrative health institute affiliated with the academic health system where I’m a patient. Through the integrative team, I’ve been able to benefit from massage therapy targeted toward my specific health issues. Because the massage therapists function within the medical system that my providers are affiliated with, they can access the EMR (electronic medical records) to evaluate my health and determine which modality is best suited for me. Massage therapies are able to treat digestive issues, chronic pain, restricting scars, fibromyalgia, lymphedema, and insomnia.
5. Pain Reprocessing Therapy
I most recently began pain reprocessing therapy, which is a unique physical therapy program offered through the integrative health institute. It helps patients improve the way they move by providing a full evaluation of the musculoskeletal, neurologic, and somatovisceral systems. My therapist primarily uses myofascial release with me to focus on areas of restrictions that are not necessarily in the same region where my symptoms are. Through gentle force, the therapist relaxes the tissues and eventually releases restrictions to reduce pain and improve my range of motion.
Where to Find Holistic Approaches
While many of the complementary therapies I’ve shared have proven beneficial for me while living with Crohn’s disease, the ability to pursue these opportunities has come at a cost — both literally and figuratively. I know cost can certainly be an impediment for patients to consider complementary therapies. If the therapy is not a covered service under insurance, then you have to pay out of pocket, which can be difficult for a lot of people.
Insurance plans are inconsistent on the types of CAM they cover — if at all — so it may feel like there are no options available to you. However, I suggest that you read through your insurance plan’s summary of benefits and coverage to determine if you have coverage or can request coverage due to medical necessity.
In addition, there are many cost-effective ways for patients to experience these modalities by seeking care through community acupuncture, during which a practitioner works with multiple patients at the same time in a common space. Massage schools also offer discounted massage rates through massage therapist students who need to train on people. Reiki masters can offer discounted rates when a client buys a bulk amount of lessons upfront.
Online free resources are also available, including these on-demand introductory materials for pain reprocessing therapy. Finally, clinical trials for CAM are available globally, with 24 IBD CAM studies available at the time of this writing.
Living with IBD for over 20 years has opened up my mind to CAM and health benefits that I had never experienced before. The nervous system is in a constant protective state in those living with chronic illness and pain, and I’ve been so grateful for the holistic approach that my many therapists utilize to evaluate how my body is protecting me from past trauma — emotional, physical, and medical. By restoring homeostasis and balance in the nervous system, my overall well-being has improved tremendously.