About 10% to 15% of diabetes patients develop a digestive complication called gastroparesis, in which food takes too long to leave the stomach—and the symptoms are nasty. But help may be on the horizon, a new study shows. The secret weapon is a small electrical device that a patient simply straps onto his or her wrist or leg.

Background: Gastroparesis develops when high blood glucose levels cause chemical changes, damaging the vagus nerve. This nerve controls the muscles that move food through the digestive tract. Gastroparesis symptoms include nausea, vomiting, heartburn, bloating, abdominal pain, stomach spasms and an uncomfortable feeling of abdominal fullness. What’s more, the condition can worsen diabetes by making blood sugar control more difficult. Medication often fails to relieve the problem. Some patients, unable to keep any food down, wind up needing feeding tubes that go straight to their intestines.

The new study: Researchers developed a watch-sized microstimulator, a device that delivers a short, painless burst of electrical stimulation. Diabetes patients with gastroparesis were asked to wear the device on their wrists or legs for two hours after lunch and for two hours after dinner, continuing daily for eight weeks. For four of those weeks, the device was positioned to make contact with specific acupressure points associated with nausea relief. (The acupoints were PC6, on the inner wrist about two-and-a-half finger widths up from the wrist crease…and ST36, on the front of the leg about four finger widths below the kneecap, just outside the shinbone.) For the other four weeks, the device was positioned slightly differently so that it did not contact the acupoints, thus delivering a sham treatment.

Throughout the study, researchers monitored patients’ symptoms and conducted electrogastrogram (EGG) tests, recording the electrical signals that control muscle contractions and nerve activity of the stomach.

Results: Electrical stimulation of the acupressure points, on average, reduced patients’ nausea by 30%…vomiting by 40%…retching by 31%…bloating by 21%…and abdominal fullness by 21%. The treatment also improved muscle and nerve function in the stomach, as shown on the EGG. The sham treatment produced no improvement in symptoms or EGG results. No side effects from electrical stimulation were reported.

These are very promising results, especially since the treatment is noninvasive, risk-free and can be used at home—but there are some caveats. For one thing, this was a small study with just 26 participants, and though it was presented at a recent meeting of the American College of Gastroenterology, it has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Also, the device used in the study isn’t available to the public yet. Though further studies are need, researchers hope that the microstimulator treatment will be available by prescription within a year or two.

In the meantime: There is another approach that, in theory, might be helpful for patients with diabetes-induced gastroparesis. Talk to a licensed acupuncturist about having professional acupressure stimulation of the same acupoints used in the study…or consider electroacupuncture, which is similar to traditional acupuncture except that an electrical current makes the needle stimulation stronger and steadier. Click here to read another Bottom Line article on electroacupuncture. To find a licensed acupuncturist in your area, visit the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.