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Acupuncture for Stroke Recovery: Can It Help Improve Mobility?

patient receiving acupuncture for stroke recovery

Acupuncture for stroke recovery may help patients improve mobility — even if they struggle with paralysis.

Post-stroke paralysis is a chronic condition that takes time and effort to improve. If acupuncture really can help, then stroke patients may want to try this low-risk treatment.

Plus, there’s a growing pool of clinical evidence supporting acupuncture for stroke recovery. Not all studies are in agreement, and you’ll discover the full story below.

Where Acupuncture and Stroke Recovery Meet

First up, it helps to understand what acupuncture is and how it can benefit individuals following stroke.

Acupuncture is a Traditional Chinese Medicine treatment that involves placing very thin needles into specific points (called acupoints) on the body.

A skilled acupuncturist understands which acupoints correlate with different meridians, or “pathways,” on the body. This process is thought to balance the body’s flow of energy called qi.

In the East, acupuncture is recognized as an effective treatment for all kinds of ailments from digestive issues to insomnia. It’s believed to help reduce stress, improve emotion, and enhance overall wellbeing.

In the West, acupuncture is only formally recognized for pain management – likely because that’s where most supporting clinical evidence resides. Therefore, acupuncture is an attractive treatment option for some patients with post-stroke pain.

With its wide range of potential benefits, acupuncture may greatly enhance the recovery process.

But what else can acupuncture contribute to stroke recovery?

Electroacupuncture Helps Patients Recover Mobility After Stroke

stroke patient recovering from paralysis with acupuncture

There’s a growing pool of clinical evidence supporting acupuncture for stroke recovery – especially electroacupuncture.

Electroacupuncture is a treatment where electrical stimulation is applied to the acupuncture needles after they are inserted into the body.

Electrical stimulation (the non-acupuncture kind) is widely accepted as an effective stroke rehabilitation method that helps patients recover movement. Normally, electrical currents are applied to the affected muscles via pads applied to the skin to stimulate movement.

With electroacupuncture, the needles are placed wherever the acupuncturist sees fit, and then they are stimulated with gentle electrical currents. This may target the affected muscles, or it could involve other meridians on the body.

Although these treatments are different, there’s evidence supporting both electrical stimulation and electroacupuncture for improving mobility after stroke.

Other Benefits of Acupuncture for Stroke Recovery

Here are some other evidence-based benefits of acupuncture and electroacupuncture for stroke recovery:

  • Spasticity improves. Electroacupuncture was found to reduce spasticity when combined with conventional routine care. This aligns with the well-understood principle that electrical stimulation for stroke patients is more effective when combined with physical or occupational therapy. [Study 1]
  • Swallowing abilities improve. Difficulty swallowing is a condition known as dysphagia. Acupuncture was found to help improve swallowing abilities in patients with dysphagia. [Study 2]
  • Balance improves. Acupuncture was found to help improve balance and reduce the risk of falling in stroke patients. [Study 3]
  • Muscle strength improves. Electroacupuncture was found to improve leg strength when applied 5x/week for 2 weeks. [Study 4]
  • Post-stroke paralysis may improve. In a recent study, acupuncture was found effective for the treatment of post-stroke paralysis. [Study 5]

Some studies conclude that the benefits of acupuncture for stroke recovery are only due to the placebo effect.

This is not necessarily a down side however, if a low-risk treatment like acupuncture offers enough hope that someone experiences results just because they think they’ll see results (i.e. the placebo effect).

If you’re eager for an alternative treatment that can help you improve mobility along with other potential benefits, acupuncture might be worth a try.

Are There Any Risks of Trying Acupuncture After Stroke?

Acupuncture is a relatively low-risk treatment. Most patients experience a pleasant calming sensation while receiving treatment.

However, there are some risks, like soreness or bleeding around the needle sites. In cases of poor practice, it’s possible to get infections.

For this reason, be sure to work with a licensed acupuncturist. They know how to minimize the risks and side effects by needling the correct acupoints. To prevent infection, they also know to use sterile, single-use needles only.

yellow warning sign

Furthermore, licensed acupuncturists place great care during your first visit to go over all preexisting medical conditions. When you tell your acupuncturist about your stroke, they should ask even more questions.

They should strive to differentiate the type of stroke you had (like an ischemic stroke caused by a blood clot vs hemorrhagic stroke caused by a burst artery).

This should be considered because some believe that acupuncture opens blood vessels and decreases clotting. For someone with a history of ischemic stroke, this could be a good thing. But for someone with a history of hemorrhagic stroke, that could be very dangerous.

Therefore, be sure to look for licensure when you search for your acupuncturist. If you see the credentials L.Ac., that means they have completed 3,000-4,000+ hours of Master level training. Don’t hesitate to ask your acupuncturist questions if you have concerns about its risks.

Alternatives to Acupuncture

Traditional Chinese Medicine alternative treatment

It’s worth noting that acupuncture is only one modality of Traditional Chinese Medicine. If it does not appeal to you, there are other natural remedies for stroke recovery that you can try.

Acupressure follows many of the same principles as acupuncture, but is non-invasive. It involves using the hands and fingers to apply pressure to certain points on the body, and is a good alternative for those who are worried about the use of needles with acupuncture. One study demonstrated that acupressure could increase upper extremity function, enhance participation in daily activities, and reduce depression.

Additionally, some Chinese herbs may aid your recovery.

Herbal supplements don’t help rewire the brain. However, they may improve your energy levels, which can help motivate you to pursue rehabilitation.

Furthermore, Chinese herbs may also help you overcome secondary medical complications after stroke like pneumonia, headaches, depression, and fatigue. This, again, may help free up more energy so that you can pursue rehabilitation.

Some Chinese herbs can be dangerous for certain stroke patients, so proceed with caution.

For example, the herb Buchang Naoxinton helps thin the blood to reduce clotting, which, again, could be dangerous for someone with a history of hemorrhagic stroke.

As with all medical advice, it’s important to talk to your doctor before making any changes.

Acupuncture for Stroke Recovery

Chinese medicine is highly individualized – just like stroke recovery. What works for one person might not work for another. It’s important to keep safely experimenting until you find something that works for you.

Overall, acupuncture offers benefits for individuals that want to improve mobility after stroke. Electroacupuncture in particular offers hope for recovery from post-stroke paralysis and other issues that interfere with movement, like spasticity.

Acupuncture may also help improve emotion and other secondary complications after stroke, so it could be well worth a try.

Acupuncture is just one modality from Traditional Chinese Medicine. If you’re interested in other alternative treatments, talk to your doctor before taking any new supplements or exploring other options.

Featured image: ©iStock.com/humonia

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