Can Acupuncture Help With Stroke Rehabilitation and Recovery?

acupuncture for stroke rehabilitation
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If you or someone you know has had a stroke, you may be well aware that the road to recovery after treatment can be long and often frustrating. Rehabilitation begins as early as possible, often during the initial hospital stay, to be most effective and may include rehabilitation nursing, physical and occupational therapy, speech therapy, and social work.

In addition to standard rehabilitation, some people turn to acupuncture, a type of needle-based alternative therapy long used in traditional Chinese medicine.

According to the 2002 National Health Interview Survey, 46 percent of stroke survivors in the United States use complementary and alternative medicine, with acupuncture being the only therapy used more frequently in stroke survivors.

During an acupuncture treatment, the practitioner inserts fine needles into specific points on the body. It’s said to ease pain, improve quality of life and emotional well-being, and possibly help with activities of daily living such as walking or self-care.

Can Acupuncture Speed Stroke Recovery?

While some studies suggest that acupuncture may benefit people who have had a stroke, there haven’t been enough well-designed clinical trials to reach a conclusion.

For instance, a 2010 research review published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal sized up 10 studies (with a total of 711 participants) on acupuncture and stroke recovery. According to the study's authors, there was no indication that acupuncture could improve activities of daily living, neurological deficits, motor recovery, or quality of life.

Three of the studies, however, included people who were more than six months post-stroke (earlier stroke rehabilitation is generally considered more effective). 

In a research review published in Acupuncture in Medicine in 2015, scientists examined previously published clinical trials comparing acupuncture and rehabilitation therapy to rehabilitation alone in people who were three months or less post-stroke.

In their conclusion, the authors state that acupuncture with rehabilitation may have benefits over rehabilitation alone.

A couple of studies indicate that acupuncture may have specific benefits during stroke rehabilitation. Here's a look at their findings:

1) Swallowing Difficulties After Stroke

After a stroke, some people have difficulty swallowing (a condition known as dysphagia) which makes eating and drinking challenging and can result in choking and aspiration. For a report published in the Cochrane Database of Systemic Reviews in 2012, researchers sized up 33 previously published studies (with a total of 6779 participants) comparing different treatments for dysphagia in people who had a stroke within six months of enrolling in the study. In their review, the report authors found evidence that acupuncture reduced dysphagia.

2) Spasticity

After a stroke, some people have muscle stiffness and involuntary contraction (known as spasticity), which can make performing daily activities difficult.

A study published in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics in 2014 suggests that an acupuncture technique called "dry needling" may help decrease spasticity. With dry needling, the needle is inserted into certain areas of the muscle known as trigger points.

The study involved 34 people with leg spasticity following a stroke who either underwent one dry needling session or received no treatment. Study results suggest that dry needling reduced spasticity and pressure sensitivity.

Side Effects and Adverse Reactions

When using acupuncture for stroke rehabilitation, it's important to work with a qualified medical acupuncturist who has experience with stroke recovery therapy. Sterile, single-use acupuncture needles should only be used.

While the risks are generally considered low if acupuncture is done by a competent, licensed acupuncturist, possible side effects can include soreness, bruising, or bleeding at the needle location, organ injury, and infections.

In the research review published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, adverse events included one case of seizure, five cases of hematoma around the acupuncture points, and two cases of dizziness.

If you have a bleeding disorder, are taking blood thinners such as warfarin, have a pacemaker, are pregnant, or have a compromised immune system, you may not be a good candidate for acupuncture.

Some Final Thoughts

Stroke rehabilitation is a lengthy and often complex process, which can make you feel dissatisfied with your recovery and look for additional therapies for help. While there isn't enough evidence to form a conclusion about acupuncture's effectiveness, for some people, it may help improve quality of life and have positive effects on concerns such as swallowing or spasticity.

If you're thinking of trying acupuncture, it's crucial that you consult your physician first. He or she may help you determine whether including it as part of your rehabilitation therapy would be beneficial.

Sources:

Geeganage C, Beavan J, Ellender S, Bath PM. Interventions for dysphagia and nutritional support in acute and subacute stroke. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 Oct 17;10:CD000323. 

Kong JC, Lee MS, Shin BC, Song YS, Ernst E. Acupuncture for functional recovery after stroke: a systematic review of sham-controlled randomized clinical trials. CMAJ. 2010 Nov 9;182(16):1723-9.

Shah SH, Engelhardt R, Ovbiagele B. Patterns of complementary and alternative medicine use among United States stroke survivors. J Neurol Sci. 2008 Aug 15;271(1-2):180-5. 

Salom-Moreno J, Sánchez-Mila Z, Ortega-Santiago R, Palacios-Ceña M, Truyol-Domínguez S, Fernández-de-las-Peñas C. Changes in spasticity, widespread pressure pain sensitivity, and baropodometry after the application of dry needling in patients who have had a stroke: a randomized controlled trial. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2014 Oct;37(8):569-79.

Vados L, Ferreira A, Zhao S, Vercelino R, Wang S. Effectiveness of acupuncture combined with rehabilitation for treatment of acute or subacute stroke: a systematic review. Acupunct Med. 2015 Jun;33(3):180-7. 

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

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