Two small studies may shed some light on whether acupuncture, the ancient art of traditional Chinese medicine in which needles are used in pressure points on the body, may help alleviate heartburn. An Australian study of 14 heartburn-free volunteers found that electrical stimulation of an acupuncture point on the wrist reduced the number of times the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) muscle relaxed. This may keep stomach acids from rising up in the esophagus (the cause of heartburn.)  Normally when you swallow, the LES muscle, a circular band of muscle around the bottom part of the esophagus, relaxes to let food and liquid down into the stomach. It then closes again. But when the lower esophageal sphincter relaxes too often or becomes weakened, stomach acid can flow back up into the esophagus, causing heartburn.

The study used acupoint stimulation, a needleless form of acupuncture, to send a small electrical pulse to specific acupuncture points on the skin. The technique reduced the number of LES relaxations by 40 percent in the study participants. However, it's unclear whether the effects of the acupoint stimulation are long lasting. The study results only showed that the number of LES relaxations declined during the acupoint stimulation. Further studies must be done to determine whether the procedure will actually prevent acid reflux and heartburn from occurring.

In a recent report published in the British medical journal, Acupuncture in Medicine, a Brazilian study showed that acupuncture may help relieve bouts of indigestion and heartburn in pregnant women. The study randomly assigned 42 pregnant women with indigestion to dietary counseling and antacids or to dietary counseling, antacids, and acupuncture once or twice a week. The results showed that heartburn was reduced by half in 75 percent of the women treated with acupuncture. The women also reported eating and sleeping better, according to the report.

However, because the study protocol did not include any type of placebo treatment such as simulated acupuncture to make the two test groups more comparable, other medical experts argue that acupuncture in pregnant women may not work any better than conventional treatment.

While indigestion and heartburn are common occurrences during pregnancy, women can often find relief by eating several small meals a day instead of three large ones; avoiding foods that are spicy or fatty; and using over-the-counter antacids. But before doing anything, check with your doctor first to develop a plan that is best for you.