Acupuncture is a staple of traditional Chinese medicine dating back more than 3000 years. Most commonly, the stimulating technique involves using thin needles to penetrate precise points on the skin. However many non-needle therapies including rubbing, heating, and suctioning exist. Over the years, acupuncture has been used to target and alleviate a broad spectrum of medical conditions. Some clinical research has also suggested that acupuncture is a safe and eﬀective therapy for post-stroke rehabilitation and improvement of behavior after ischemic stroke. Some have speculated that acupuncture can augment functional recovery after stroke by improving blood flow to the affected brain area. However, the exact mechanism remains elusive.
The study set-up with acupuncture
To better understand the effects of acupuncture on the brain after stroke, Chinese researchers recruited 17 patients that suffered a stroke at least three weeks before the study. As a means for comparison, 14 healthy individuals also participated in the study. Patients were divided into two groups: one with antiplatelet therapy only, and one with acupuncture and antiplatelet therapy. As you may know, antiplatelet drugs inhibit the formation of blood clots in the arteries. Acupuncture points included locations on the head, lower leg, elbow, and hand. The patients received acupuncture five days a week for two hours each day. Before and after a month of treatment, the patients underwent a fMRI scan to measure blood flow in the brain and neurological activity.
Effects of acupuncture
The study produced some intriguing results. The acupuncture group demonstrated a notably improved connection between the motor areas of both sides of the brain that trended toward normal, an effect not observed in the patients receiving the drug only. In essence, the acupuncture appeared to improve collaboration between the two sides of the brain! Also, the neurological deficits improved more in the acupuncture group compared to the drug treatment group. Even further, the patients with increased levels of communication between the brain’s motor areas also had better neurological outcomes.
The authors concluded that acupuncture could be a valuable addition to conventional rehab and drug therapies. If you are post-stroke and interested in whether acupuncture may help boost your recovery, search for physicians trained in the practice. You should keep in mind that it is not standard training in all medical schools. Make sure that the physician has a lot of experience in acupuncture!
The lead author of the original article is Dr. Yongxin Li, Guangdong Provincial Key Laboratory of Medical Biomechanics, School of Basic Medical Sciences, Southern Medical University, Guangzhou, China.