Acupuncture and stroke rehabilitation

Bronze man webLast month I was asked to present a series of educational sessions to the medical team at the Princess Alexandra Hospital’s Brain Injury Rehabilitation Unit (BIRU).

I was really impressed with BIRU. The doctors, nurses and allied health practitioners have created an incredible program and facility to support the progress of their patients.

My presentation focused on acupuncture and its role in stroke rehabilitation.

I’ve long been interested in this area of Chinese medicine. While I was completing my internship in China I observed Chinese doctors treating acute stroke patients with both western and Chinese medicine side-by-side in hospitals. In Australia, while I was training at college we were trained to give acupuncture to patients at varying stages post-stroke. Some of the results were quite remarkable and it was observed with our small group of stroke patients that the sooner acupuncture was commenced post-stroke, the better the results were for rehabilitation.

When I put the education sessions together for the BIRU medical team, I was really keen to read the latest research on acupuncture and stroke rehabilitation. Here is a little snapshot of some of the research I found:

  • The Cochrane Review of acupuncture and acute stroke found that ›acupuncture when compared with sham acupuncture or control had a borderline significant trend towards fewer patients being dead or dependent, and significantly fewer being dead in the acupuncture group after 3 months or more. There was a significant difference favouring acupuncture in the mean change of global neurological deficit score and severe adverse events were rare.
  • Another Cochrane Review examining the evidence supporting acupuncture for stroke rehabilitation found ›“the overall estimate from four trials suggested the odds of improvement in global neurological deficit was higher in the acupuncture group compared with the control group.”
  • A meta-analysis of scalp acupuncture (where needles are threaded along the scalp – which is not as painful as it sounds) in acute stroke patients found that acupuncture had fewer serious adverse reactions than many accepted medical interventions when practiced by well trained practitioners. The researchers also concluded that the studies considered indicate that acupuncture improved the neurological deficit score.
  • A systematic review found that acupuncture was an effective treatment for shoulder pain following stroke, particularly when combined with exercise.
  • A small study found that when patients with stroke in the left hemisphere of the brain were given acupuncture on their right arms (the affected side), interestingly, it was the right side of the brain that responded to the acupuncture. This was thought to be enhancing the compensatory process.

It should be noted that the researchers stated that larger, high-quality trials are needed to conclusively support the role of acupuncture in stroke rehabilitation. However, the research that we do have is promising and acupuncture has been shown to have a low risk of adverse reactions.

For further information on stroke rehabilitation with acupuncture contact Sarah George.  Sarah is a practitioner of acupuncture (CMRB registered), massage therapy and natural medicine at Acupuncture & Natural Therapies Centre and lectures at the Endeavour College of Natural Health in Chinese Medicine.


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