Acupuncture for Stroke Patients
What is a stroke and why is it dangerous?
Our brain relies on fresh oxygen and glucose to function and doesn’t store either one, so we need a constant flow of fresh blood to supply those vital nutrients. Among other things, the brain collects information from our sensory neurons and directs our musculoskeletal system to respond appropriately. Because it receives and processes stimulus from all over the body, damage to the brain can affect both sensory processes and coordinated movement, including speech and memory. Acupuncture treatment is an opportunity to minimize local damage in the brain and recover function throughout the body.
In the event of a stroke, blood flow is obstructed either to the brain or within the brain. Without blood flow, cells starved for oxygen and glucose begin to die. Stroke recovery depends on returning blood flow as soon as possible and stimulating the nerves to restore neural communication where recovery is possible. The severity of a stroke depends where the blockage occurred and how long cells were left without blood flow. Immediate treatment, within the first few days or weeks, can greatly increase the extent of recovery.
Strokes are also called cerebrovascular accidents or CVAs. There are two types: ischemic and hemorrhagic. An ischemic stroke is a clot or piece of plaque that lodges in a blood vessel and blocks flow to cells beyond that point. This is the most common type with the best prognosis. Almost 90% of CVAs are ischemic. A hemorrhagic stroke is more dangerous. It is an obstruction caused by a burst blood vessel that interrupts flow and increases pressure on the surrounding areas. It can happen within the brain tissue or between the brain tissue and the skull.
Stroke treatment in Western Medicine
If an ischemic stroke is treated within a few hours with Tissue Plasma Activator (tPA) the medication can break up the clot and minimize or prevent damage. (see https://www.aarp.org/health/conditions-treatments/info-2018/will-test-delete-stroke-treatment.html) Otherwise, after damage is assessed, speech and occupational therapy are often indicated to improve functioning.
Stroke is the greatest cause of permanent disability in the US. To prevent stroke in high risk patients, sometimes blood thinners are prescribed, though the danger with any blood thinning medications is unexpected bleeding. Because high cholesterol and heart disease are stroke risk factors, statins to control cholesterol and ACE inhibitors to lower blood pressure and increase blood flow are often prescribed. The American Stroke Association website, stroke.org, has extensive information on strokes and treatment, including prevention strategies.
Acupuncture and herbal formulas for stroke recovery
In the event of a stroke, acupuncture treatment is an opportunity to minimize local damage in the brain and recover function throughout the body. If you are at risk for a stroke, acupuncture and herbal medicine can assist you to address the stress factors. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4203477/
In several studies, acupuncture and electric stimulation acupuncture have improved balance, increased muscle strength and increased muscular control in patients who have experienced an ischemic stroke. The sooner the treatment is initiated after the stroke, the better the prognosis. Angiogenesis, the formation of new blood vessels, begins within 12-24 hours after a stroke and continues for three weeks. Acupuncture treatment can maximize the body’s effort to restore blood flow and nerve transmission, and support new cell growth.
The channel system used by acupuncturists, while activated at the surface, travels deep into the body. It is a time-tested circulatory map that is not unlike the western neurologic and blood circulatory system. By activating acupuncture points along a given pathway, an acupuncturist can stimulate the nervous system and, and in essence by sending a message along that same or another pathway, can increase blood flow.
Acupuncture, in combination with herbal medicine, can be particularly effective for stroke recovery because an herbal formula can be custom designed. Chinese herbal formulas can target specific organs that may be affected by stroke along with associated problems. Formulas can support overall energy and help to regulate sleep and digestion. Don’t hesitate to talk with your acupuncturist about the complex array of symptoms you are experiencing.
In China, Korea, and Japan, scalp acupuncture therapy is commonly used for stroke, and other diseases related to the cerebral cortex with the common symptoms of paralysis, speech difficulties, and/or swallowing problems. Scalp acupuncture treatment involves needling the scalp at points that correspond with areas of the cerebral cortex.
While acupuncture has been around for thousands of years, scalp acupuncture wasn’t fully developed until the early 1970’s when the Chinese neurosurgeon, Dr. Jiao Shun-fa, discovered that stimulating an area of the scalp will increase blood flow in a corresponding area of the brain, resulting in improved function of the brain tissue. The doctor systematically created a map of the skull that associates each area and function of the body with a corresponding location on the cerebral cortex.
During a scalp acupuncture treatment, patients can experience a sensation of heat on the limbs opposite the side that is needled. Occasionally, the sensation will be felt over the entire body or at a single joint or muscle. Initially, the patient may experience cold and numbness, but these sensations will subside either during or shortly after treatment. Generally, if the patient experiences any of these sensations, the result will be good, though in some cases the results have been good without these sensations.
There is substantial evidence demonstrating excellent results for stroke patients who receive scalp acupuncture. Dr. Jiao Shun-fa collected data from over 20,000 patients experiencing paralysis. Of those cases, 36% were cured. Of the remaining, 34% showed marked improvement and 25% showed some improvement.
Especially if treatment is initiated soon after the event, stroke patients can benefit from acupuncture 3 times a week or daily. This regular treatment is optimal for preventing further damage from the stroke and can, in some cases, help the patient to regain impaired functions.
For further reading
For comprehensive, evidence-based information on the benefits of acupuncture for stroke patients, see The International Journal of Molecular Sciences article entitled, Mechanisms of Acupuncture Therapy in Ischemic Stroke Rehabilitation: A literature Review of basic Studies, published October 28, 2017. This article condenses several studies involving hundreds of patients. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5713240/
For more information on scalp acupuncture, including the study mentioned in this article, the Review of Clinical Applications of Scalp Acupuncture for Paralysis: an Excerpt From Chinese Scalp Acupuncture, Published in Global Advances in Health and Medicine. Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3833481/