2018 update: Research on treating stroke with acupuncture continues to advance. Here’s the latest.
A stroke is a life-threatening condition involving a problem with blood flow to the brain and the death of sections of brain tissue. A stroke can either be ischemic when a blood clot cuts off circulation to a section of brain tissue, or hemorrhagic when a blood vessel in the brain bursts. A condition similar to a stroke is a TIA, or transient ischemic attack, where blood flow to a section of the brain is temporarily reduced or stopped and can result in stroke-like symptoms. Signs of a stroke in progress include slurred speech, difficulty moving on one side of the body, drooping face, and lack of responsiveness.
Because different areas of the brain can be damaged during a stroke, no two stroke patients are entirely alike. So, treatment for stroke and its after-effects depends on the nature of the symptoms and the time since the stroke occurred. And regardless of whether or not we’re talking about acupuncture, when getting treatment for the effects of stroke, time is critical. Just as stroke itself is life threatening and requires emergency attention, full recovery is more likely the sooner treatment can begin after the stroke has passed.
Stroke Management with Acupuncture
Treatment of stroke with acupuncture depends on the time since the stroke occurred. If the visit is within a couple days from the stroke, acupuncture treatment will be focused on harmonizing blood and lymph circulation to clear out edema and cell debris in the brain matter. For those who start treatment within the first couple weeks to a month after the stroke, treatment changes to focus on promoting neuronal growth, to help the brain create new neural connections and relearn activities lost from the stroke. Acupuncture points in the scalp are more likely to be chosen at this time. And for those who delay their treatment and start after the first month, treatment shifts again – this time focusing on creating new neural connections and helping re-calibrate muscle activity with what neurons have grown. This almost invariably means using electro-acupuncture, which is the running of electricity through inserted acupuncture needles, similar to a TENS unit.
Research on stroke recovery is mixed – perhaps not surprising, given the variation in stroke patients themselves. Studies show that for movement-related problems, acupuncture’s effectiveness depends on timing, just like all other therapies. For other problems that often come with stroke, such as depression or difficulty speaking, acupuncture is definitely effective.
Stroke is one of those conditions where presentation can be so highly variable that a consultation with your acupuncturist is needed to determine proper expectations for treatment. But regardless of the time frame since the incident, acupuncture has its place in helping to improve quality of life, relieve depression, and increase range of motion & control.