Acupuncture for stroke patients

Strokes are acute conditions that can develop quickly, causing widespread damage to the brain with lifelong consequences if not treated quickly and effectively. Stroke management has two distinct phases, the first being the treatment of the condition itself, and the second being therapies designed to help stroke patients during their recovery. This article looks at stroke, and more specifically, how the ancient Chinese practice of acupuncture can be used to help stroke patients.

What is stroke?

A stroke is essentially caused by a disruption of blood flow to the brain, and this disturbance will usually result in damage to tissues of the brain, and ultimately result in a decline in brain function. There are two distinct forms of stroke, the first called ischemia, where there is a lack of blood flowing to the affected part of the brain, the second being haemorrhages where there is uncontrolled bleeding that damages the brain.

Our brain is our most demanding organ, and needs a constant supply of nutrition and oxygen carried by our blood. Strokes quickly become dangerous as the affected parts of the brain are suddenly deprived of all these necessary materials, and as a result, cells in these areas begin to die. Depending on the severity of the stroke and where it has occurred, a sufferer will lose brain function. Common effects of stroke are a loss of movement, partial blindness, or an inability to speak or understand speech clearly.

Strokes are a medical emergency that need treatment as soon as possible. If treatment is administered quickly enough, then a stroke’s effects on brain function can be limited. The early signs of a stroke follow a pattern, and the first symptom is usually a sudden weakening of muscles on one side of the face. This is followed by arm drift, which happens when a sufferer is asked to raise their hands, one of their arms will begin to drop downwards involuntarily, and then by difficulties in speech. Once these symptoms have been identified, emergency services need to be contacted immediately. It is absolutely critical that a person having stroke is provided with emergency medical care.

The incidence of strokes is affected by a number of different risk factors, including age, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and smoking. The type of stroke affects how a patient is treated. People suffering from an ischaemic stroke, for example, are given treatments designed to effectively ‘unblock’ obstructions restricting blood flow to the affected parts of the brain. Haemorrhagic strokes require a different set of treatments designed to stop bleeding either through the administration of drugs or through surgery.

After stroke treatment, many patients will usually need stroke rehabilitation. The nature and type of rehabilitation will depend on how much damage the stroke has managed to do. In some cases, where a patient has received the right treatment quickly enough, minimal rehabilitation will be needed. However in others, a stroke can cause severe disabilities that require rehabilitation.

The purpose of rehabilitation is to help a stroke patient adapt to the consequences of a stroke, and regain as much functionality as possible. Rehab is the jurisdiction of a large team of professionals which include psychologists to deal with the depression that often follows a severe stroke, physiotherapists to help restore movement and mobility if possible, social workers, and occupational therapists. Rehabilitation has improved dramatically in more recent years, and outcomes after rehab continue to improve.

Acupuncture has been proposed by some as a useful tool in the rehabilitation of stroke patients, and in the following section we look at whether or not this ancient Chinese practice can be applied to modern stroke patients.

Can acupuncture be used to help rehabilitate stroke patients?

Some sources argue that acupuncture can be a useful tool in the rehabilitation of stroke patients, particularly those suffering from conditions like speech impairment and a loss of movement following their stroke. Unfortunately there is no strong scientific evidence available to either support or completely disprove acupuncture’s usefulness in this field.

Acupuncture is routinely used in China as a treatment for a variety of conditions, including stroke rehabilitation. Traditional Chinese practitioners base their acupuncture on the principles of Qi flow, which state that by using acupuncture to restore the healthy flow of a life energy called Qi parts of the body suffering from illness can be treated. Many Western practitioners follow different beliefs regarding the workings of acupuncture, and these revolve around the theory that acupunctural treatment can stimulate the release of important signalling chemicals called neurotransmitters which can promote healing and limit the sensation of pain.

Unfortunately acupuncture’s role in stroke rehabilitation is extremely uncertain, however other rehab techniques like physical and occupational therapy are supported by a large body scientific research. Stroke rehabilitation has evolved substantially in recent years, and patients now have access to a more comprehensive service than ever before.

With further research acupuncture’s usefulness in rehabilitating stroke patients may become more clear, and despite the lack of supporting evidence, there are many people who benefit from acupunctural treatment. That being said, alternative therapies like acupuncture should not be pursued as a replacement for existing and proven rehabilitation techniques and methods.

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