Medical science is always trying to find new and innovative ways to solve long standing problems. Stroke and its resulting disabilities have frustrated medical researchers and patients alike. Once a stroke affects you and takes away your ability to think, move, and care for yourself, no one can do anything to bring those abilities back.
However, in the Eastern tradition, the practice of acupuncture has been used for centuries to help with all types of disability. Many acupuncturists make wild claims about the use of the therapy for stroke patients. From reversing dementia to regaining the feeling in a limb, some of these claims can sound pretty outlandish. It should be investigated, though, because if acupuncture can do half of what it claims, then it is well worth the effort to scientifically test it.
What is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture is based on the theory that your body is filled with a life force called chi. When the body experiences disease or discomfort, the theory states that the chi must be blocked from flowing correctly. By placing needles in specific spots where the chi flows, the practitioner can direct the energy, open up the blockage, and restore health to the patient. It takes experience and training to know where to place the needles and how to restore the chi to proper balance.
In the case of stroke treatments, there are two different types of acupuncture. The first type is plain acupuncture that merely involves using plain needles directed into the acupuncture sites located throughout the body. The more recent – and some say more effective – type of acupuncture involves attaching electrodes to the needles and passing a small current into the acupuncture point. This is said to increase the flow of chi and help to open up the blockages more quickly.
Science has studied acupuncture for years in the case of pain management and infertility. In some cases, it has shown benefit. The theory is that the placement of the needles stimulates the blood flow or other healing chemicals in the body, and this accounts for its successes. However, acupuncture remains hotly contested as pseudoscience in the medical community, and rigorous research studies are still ongoing to determine its place in modern science.
What are the Claims?
The claims for acupuncture as a treatment for stroke are nothing short of astounding. Some practitioners have claimed that contracted muscles slowly open up and can move freely. With the case of numbness on one side of the body, acupuncture has been identified as one of the only treatments to help restore feeling. Even the mental aspects of stroke, such as dementia, are reported to respond well to acupuncture techniques and improve cognitive function.
Studies into these claims are notoriously difficult. For instance, many of the claims are anecdotal. It seems to work for one patient, but finding consistent, repeatable results on a wide group of patients has been challenging. In addition, many of the studies are biased because they are conducted by those who practice acupuncture for a living. The studies that have been conducted on the ability of acupuncture to treat stroke outcomes have not been as positive as those conducted by practitioners in the field.
What Research Reveals
Scientific tests on acupuncture for stroke symptoms are not that promising. An analysis of several studies into stroke and acupuncture published in the medical journal Stroke in 2002 showed that it does not help motor recovery, but it does show some improvement in disability. However, since many studies do not meet the rigorous guidelines for scientific testing, it is difficult to get a large enough sample size to determine the efficacy of the treatment. The benefits that do seem to come from acupuncture may easily be related to a placebo effect. More studies need to be conducted to determine if there is any validity to the claims of acupuncturists.
A more recent study published in 2011 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal also looked at a wide variety of studies into the use of acupuncture after stroke. This study showed more definitively that there were no functional improvements in those who received acupuncture after a stroke and those who received “sham” acupuncture that puts the needles in the wrong place, does not sink them deep enough, or otherwise interrupts the flow of the treatment. The researchers do state that this method of testing cannot be fully trusted because the sham treatment may have some physical effect. While acupuncture offers hope as an alternative or complementary treatment for stroke, more scientific researches are needed before anyone can definitively claim acupuncture as a viable treatment for disability after a stroke.
Stroke; Does Acupuncture Improve Motor Recovery After Stroke?; Frank Kai-hoi Sze, FRCP, et. al.; March 2002
Reuters; Acupuncture not helpful for stroke recovery; September 2010