Do Acupuncture Treatments Help Post-Stroke?

When my mom had her stroke in December 2011, we weren’t thinking about the best sequence for treatment and therapy. Initially, we wondered if she would even live. Then, we wondered how long she would live in the ICU. As we were wondering if Mom would live and what her quality of life would be, we never once wondered, Do acupuncture treatments help post-stroke? Should Mom be doing this?

acupuncture
Thanks to Cupping Resource.

What the “Experts” Think

Researching this topic was borderline funny because of the extreme positions that people tend to take on this topic. Naturally, there is one side that says evidence is inconclusive. The other side says that acupuncture is truly beneficial to the post-stroke recovery process. Let’s examine both sides.

It’s Inconclusive.

According to the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture, it’s tough to conclusively state that acupuncture is beneficial to post-stroke recovery. This is because many of the existing studies are from China. China has a history of publishing and promoting studies whose results confirm what the Chinese government and agencies want to promote.

Since acupuncture is a form of ancient Chinese medicine, it makes sense that they might have bias toward studies that prove the effectiveness of acupuncture. Unfortunately, because of this known bias and because many of the studies don’t match up to basic research study criteria in the United States, the studies don’t really count in the United States. At this point in time, there are not enough studies with respected, conclusive evidence for the United States to decide one way or the other about the effectiveness of acupuncture in post-stroke therapy.

It’s Beneficial.

According to the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, it’s so beneficial that it should be done almost immediately after the stroke.

“There is a misconception that acupuncture is contraindicated in the acute stage of stroke. Quite the contrary, acupuncture should intervene promptly, as early as the first hour after onset. Every hour of delay can potentially harm the outcome. The best treatment windows are, in decreasing order of therapeutic value: (1) the first three hours, (2) the first three days, (3) the first week, (4) the first month, (5) the first three months, and (6) the first six months.”

I want to take a moment to point out that, in my research, this was the most extreme guidance. In other articles, acupuncture was recommended for stable individuals. For example, some mentioned that receiving acupuncture treatments once you’ve left the hospital or even once you’ve left the rehabilitation center would be beneficial. This is the only site that suggested visiting you in the ICU in order to get the most out of your rehabilitation opportunity.

What I Think

After driving by an acupuncture sign and reading some articles on the internet, my mom decided that she wanted to try acupuncture. She was 5 years post-stroke and reached a plateau in her abilities. In particular, her left arm and hand seemed to quit gaining strength and mobility.

Plateaus are frustrating, but I imagine they are particularly frustrating for people post-stroke. For a person who has not had a stroke, a plateau is a still point, a lack of growth and an inability to move upward. However, for a person who is post-stroke, a plateau is a stopping point, an unyielding halt in your attempt to regain the strength and mobility that you used to have.

Needless to say, my dad and I embraced the idea and helped find a local acupuncturist. Mom scheduled an appointment, and I got to see Mom the weekend after her first session.

Truthfully, she didn’t even need to tell me that she received treatment that week because it was obvious. As she talked, she gestured with her left hand, something she had not been able to do for the past 5 years. She walked easily, confidently, and at a brisker pace than normal. Happiness and optimism replaced the worry and caution that she normally carried like oppressive weights.

It was the closest I had come to seeing Mom restored to her former self. She still receives treatments and still continues to benefit. I believe in acupuncture, and I believe that it can be extremely helpful in post-stroke treatment–even if you’re several years post-stroke.

What Mom Thinks

Although my opinion is important, my mom’s opinion is what matters most. She thinks that her acupuncture treatments have been very beneficial. Originally, she was drawn to acupuncture because she read that it was a tool for pain release. This sounded good to her.

In addition to pain release, the acupuncture treatments have also helped relax tightened muscles. After the stroke, some of her muscles contracted and stayed in a contracted position. This is particularly noticeable in her fingers and toes on the left side.

With more relaxed fingers, Mom is able to turn the pages of a book and open envelopes. She can take paper out of an envelope, and she can put it back in. Because her toes are relaxing, Mom has better balance and is able to walk better.

Her treatments also have helped bring sensation back to her foot, leg, and hand. The increased sensation in her foot improves her gait because she is better able to sense where her foot is in space and on the ground. “Except, when the feeling comes back, it kind of throws me off because it’s odd to have the sensation back. Then, I can move better.”

Additionally, Mom uses acupuncture to help strengthen her voice. Post-stroke, her voice was weak and sounded raspy. With help from acupuncture, her vocal tone is clearing, and you can hear that she has better support from her diaphragm to project a more confident voice.

Conclusion

Regardless of actual scientific data, Mom and I are decided:  Acupuncture post-stroke could work. The main variable, and in my opinion, a major reason why the United States cannot conclusively back acupuncture as a post-stroke therapy, is that strokes are unique. There is so much variance between this person’s stroke versus that person’s stroke that it’s hard to definitively say that yes, it’s good for everyone.

So, sure, there’s a chance that it may not work. But isn’t it worth a try? Maybe you could experience returned sensation like my mom, who had her first treatment nearly 5 years after her stroke. All hope is not lost, no matter where you are in your recovery process.

Who else is using acupuncture for a post-stroke treatment? Let us know what you think in the comments. Also, feel free to give shout-outs to your amazing therapists. 

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Sarah Stockett is STOTT certified in Matwork, Reformer, Cadillac, Chair, & Barrels, Injuries & Special Populations, and CORE; a Yoga Alliance RYT-200; and has studied Active Isolated Stretching. When she is not trying to discover the best exercises to get rid of pain, she likes watching movies and travelling with her family.

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