The gag reflex, also referred to as a pharyngeal spasm, is an automatic contraction of the back of the throat that is usually evoked by touching either the back of the tongue, the roof of the mouth, or the back of the throat. A recent study conducted by researchers in Italy found that acupuncture may be of aid for those who wish to quell their gag reflex, such as during a visit with the dentist.

“Many patients avoid dental appointments because of severe gagging when they have work performed, such as taking impressions,” the authors wrote. “The aim of the present study therefore was to evaluate whether acupuncture can produce a reduction of the gag reflex.” How did the researchers go about this task?

The Dentist's Chair

A total of 20 patients, between 19 and 80 years old, participated in the study. All had a history of gag reflex on taking dental impressions. For the experiment, the participants had an upper and lower dental impression done without acupuncture, and then a second upper and lower alginate impression done almost immediately after acupuncture needles were inserted — the needles were left in throughout the entire procedure. On a 10-point scale, where 10 represents the worst sensation of nausea, patients reported an average gag reflex score of seven after the first round of upper teeth impressions. After the second round with acupuncture, the patients reported, on average, gag reflex scores of just one. The same results occurred for gag reflex scores during lower teeth impressions done with and without acupuncture.

The findings from our study suggest that acupuncture may be useful for preventing and treating gag reflex, and justifies further study,” wrote the authors. A separate though somewhat related study explored the possibility of using acupuncture, instead of codeine, as a treatment for children suffering from tonsillectomy pain.

Post-Surgical Use of Acupuncture

For many years, codeine has provided wonderful relief from the resulting pain from this particular operation. But earlier this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the use of this potent drug because it may cause the death of children after surgery to remove tonsils and/or adenoids. The desire for an alternative treatment is strong as post-surgical pain often lasts up to 10 days in children.

To explore acupuncture as a potential post-operative treatment, a resarcher from Children's Hospital and Health Center in San Diego enlisted the help of 56 participants ranging in age from two to 17 years old. Following their tonsillectomy, a little more than half (31) of the participants received treatment with acupuncture for their pain. On average, the benefit these patients felt after receiving the needles was just over 61 hours in duration; yet about 30 percent of patients reported less than three hours of benefit. Although the study may be too limited in size to suggest anything but preliminary findings, the author concluded that acupuncture may decrease perceived pain in children and adolescents after tonsillectomy and merits further investigation.

Sources: Bilello G, Fregapane A. Gag reflex control through acupuncture: a case series. Acupuncture in Medicine. 2013.

Ochi JW. Acupuncture instead of codeine for tonsillectomy pain in children. International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology. 2013.