2017 update: New research has come out further showing that acupuncture shows promise in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease.
2018 update: Even more research here
Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative condition of the nervous system. Neurons in a very specific area of the brain – the substantia nigra – die or collect plaques that interfere with normal function. The neurons in this area are involved in coordination of movement, balance and gait, and planning and abstract thought. Patients most often have problems with movement and tremors, but can show a variety of other symptoms as well.
Acupuncture shows promise for Parkinson’s patients in two major areas:
One of the factors of Parkinson’s progression is that neurons in the substantia nigra continue to die. As this happens symptoms increase in severity and diversity. So, anything that can be done to help protect neurons from damage or death can promote quality of life over the long-term. Acupuncture is one treatment that has been shown to do exactly this. Use of acupuncture promotes the presence of compounds in the brain that prevent neuron cell death, as well as curbing oxidative damage in the brain (this is the same kind of damage you hear about when you hear about getting antioxidants in your diet).
Fatigue (and secondary symptom) Management
Another common problem experienced by Parkinson’s patients is fatigue. The constant tremors that these patients experience fatigue the body, and it can be difficult for patients to get enough rest and sleep to recover. Over time, this can result in deep and lasting fatigue. Acupuncture can help here by increasing blood flow to a tremoring area (to remove metabolites and lactic acid build-up) as well as by engaging the body’s parasympathetic nervous system – the regenerative and digestive functions that occur when the body is at rest. Notably, for patients who experience sluggish digestion as a result of Parkinson’s disease, acupuncture will help with this as well.
Does Acupuncture Help with Tremors?
This is the major question for Parkinson’s patients. The research says yes, although more studies still need to be done to say anything else. Patients who enter the clinic with non-Parkinson tremors can get rid of them, but the degenerative nature of Parkinson’s means that clinicians talk more about management than a cure. As usual, acupuncture can be the treatment of choice for patients who are trying to avoid or minimize their exposure to drugs, or for those who are taking a long-term view of prevention and maintenance. Since Parkinson’s patients must often deal with the complications of tolerance to medications, this means that acupuncture is worth a serious look.