Acupuncture for Strokes Doctor Q&A

Angie Hughes, explains how acupuncture can help get stroke patients moving again with less pain

How is acupuncture used for stroke patients in China?
In China they’ve got the key. When somebody has had a stroke they take him in to hospital straight away, and they do acupuncture twice a day every day. They do this because the most important thing is to really get the nerves firing that have been damaged by the actual stroke. The sooner you can get in and get acupuncture the better the recovery potential.

How widely is acupuncture used for stroke patients?
I don’t think it’s really that well known yet. Part of our challenge is to get out there. Everybody knows acupuncture is good for pain but part of our challenge is to get out there how good acupuncture is for other things like stroke recovery, digestive disorders, flus, viruses, immune system disorders, and things like that. It seems like pain is the only reason people are referred to acupuncture by their doctors. But the education is getting out that it’s starting to be used for other reasons.

What kind of results have you seen in stroke patients after acupuncture?
So far, we’ve seen that if people can get acupuncture straight away we’re getting really good results in pain and circulation. Part of our challenge is that when there’s been a lot of structural damage to the body as a result of the stroke then it’s really hard to keep the circulation going to channels that have already closed down and nerve pathways that have already closed down. But for those people who are getting in pretty quickly, like within the first two or three months of having a stroke, we’re getting great results. We’re getting an increased circulation to the limbs, so therefore increased mobility. We’re getting a lot of pain relief and a lot less numbness and tingling in the affected limbs.

Do you know how acupuncture is able to do this?
It’s still a bit of a mystery. We know acupuncture changes the chemical balance of the body. And we know that when we put an acupuncture needle in, endorphins get released. So that helps with relaxation and pain. We also know it works on the nervous system, helps keep the nerve pathways moving, and helps keep the nerves firing. So it’s good for any kind of disorders where there’s numbness and a lot of pain.

Is it surprising to see what it can do for your patients?
It’s surprising in that we have a patient here who had a stroke two or three years ago, and she’s just starting to feel her feet for the first time, her big toe. She’s starting to get less cramping. And I was under the impression that we probably couldn’t do very much for her, but the results we’re getting are still really good.

Do you think acupuncture is offering stroke patients something that nothing else can?
Yes. I don’t know whether it’s a problem with the whole medical system that stroke survivors tend to get written off easily, but in my experience they’re given a certain amount of physical therapy and if they don’t make miraculous recovery by then, then they stop the sessions. But with acupuncture we’ll keep going for as long as people will keep coming to us. And the unique thing about acupuncture is that it works so well with the circulation and with the pain. In combination with physical therapy we could really get people up and moving if we can get in there soon after the stroke actually happens.

Do they come forever or do they come for a couple of months?
It varies. I can think of one patient who has been coming for two years, and she loves her acupuncture. It makes her feel good, it helps with pain, and it helps keep her mobile. It helps keep her up and moving and doing the things she loves to do in her garden. So some people come every week, some people come for 10 or 12 sessions, have a break, and then they’ll call us up again. When the pain starts to come back, they’ll come back for acupuncture. It really depends. We’re working here with a particularly fragile elderly population. People who come to acupuncture for pain just like from sports injuries, they usually come for maybe five or six sessions, and then once that issue is resolved, we don’t see them until the next trauma happens. For the people who have had strokes, it’s an ongoing thing because the body is too weak to keep itself moving. It needs to be ongoing to keep its own circulation going. So the acupuncture is getting in there and giving the system a boost. We recommend the acupuncture on a weekly basis.

Do we have scientific evidence that this really works?
There are some studies being done, especially in China. Also I think there are more and more studies coming out in the United States that are showing if you put acupuncture needles into points that aren’t real acupuncture points then you’re not getting the same kind effect in terms of pain relief and circulation as if you’re using the regular acupuncture points that were prescribed 2,000 years ago when acupuncture first got developed. So you just need to speak to the people. They’re getting great results with the pain, and they’re getting great results with increased mobility. A lot of people say it’s mind over matter and it’s all in the mind, but I don’t think so.

For stroke patients, how important is it for a patient to be able to regain some of their mobility and function?
Well, of course it’s very important. Our focus here at Mt. St. Vincent and the other acupuncture clinics that I work at is all about enhancing people’s quality of life. If we can improve a little bit of mobility and create a little less pain in the body and people can kind of regain their control, then we’re doing a really good service.

Where would you like to see the future of acupuncture?
Right now, we see acupuncture in pain clinics. I would really like to see acupuncture working more in combination with physical therapy and in other rehab clinics. Acupuncture alone is really good for certain things but I would really like to see it in combination with Western medicine. Acupuncture should be used in combination with physical therapy and speech therapy, especially after a stroke. Then you know those in combination would really enhance the quality of somebody’s life.

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