Ask an expert - neuro and psycho logical

205 questions

We are really sorry to hear of your wife's problems. It must be extremely hard for all of you.

First, let us say that acupuncture and herbal medicine are two distinct and separate disciplines, although in China they are usually learned together. For historical reasons in the UK there were already existing traditions of acupuncture and western herbal medicine, and the two eastern modalities developed separately. So, if you go to an acupuncturist the chances are that they will not be using Chinese herbs as well. If they are you can be assured that they are very well trained, and are particularly careful when someone is already taking medications which have a serious impact on their functioning. Herbalists will know what the potential interactions of the medications are, and will make sure that nothing they do will interfere with your wife's treatment.

Acupuncture itself is extremely unlikely to cause any problems for your wife. The main source of adverse effects from treatment, other than minor transient ones, is from insertion of the needles themselves, not from the energetics of what is going on. There are no case reports of which we are aware which suggest that acupuncture treatment can do anything other than good when treating people with serious mental health issues.

 As far as the treatment itself is concerned, we were asked a question about schizophrenia a while ago, and although this is a very different problem the response we gave captures some of what we would like to say. We responded:

We have to say that although the World Health Organisation's list of treatable conditions does include schizophrenia as a condition for which some evidence of efficacy exists, the overall position is that there is nowhere enough evidence to suggest that acupuncture would be able to deliver a solution to this problem.

However, when we talk about evidence in this context, we are talking about the kind of randomised control trials beloved of drug testing regimes, which are not the most suitable way of testing a complex multivariate process like traditional acupuncture. Is there a history of acupuncture and herbal medicine for serious mental disorder? Well, the answer would be a qualified yes. There are a number of presentations for groups of symptoms which could well be characterised as psychosis which are recognised syndromes in Chinese medicine with clear treatment protocols. This is even more the case with Tibetan medicine which uniquely in Far Eastern medicine has a very complex and enduring tradition of using herbal medicines to treat a number of what we regard as sectionable mental disorders. However, this tradition has barely travelled to the West, and few practitioners have the necessary skills to offer solutions.

The major issue would be to locate someone with the requisite skills and experience. Although we have few recognised specialisms in traditional acupuncture we have been developing areas like paediatrics, obstetrics and mental health issues where we believe the special nature of the client group may require additional skills which we would recognise as expert practice. Although in theory, as generalists we should all be able to help any patient we take the view that serious mental disease needs some familiarity with the field and some experience of how to work with people in extremely distressed states. Not everyone has this experience or skill, and it would not help your wife is someone is out of their depth. With that caveat it may be possible to locate someone through our searchable database who is skilled in this area and willing to have a try. The chances are that anyone working in an area will know which of their colleagues is most likely to be able to help,

We think that there is still some wisdom in these words, and our advice is pretty much always to visit a local BAcC member for a brief informal assessment of what might be possible. These situations are so very complex that it is nigh on impossible to give a definitive view at arm's length. We always feel confident that we can help everyone to a degree, but when a situation is quite fraught it is always best to make sure that a patient gets the help they need, even if that means referring them to other forms of treatment.

 

 

The use of acupuncture treatment to help after stroke is now becoming more greatly accepted, and as you can see from our review paper

https://www.acupuncture.org.uk/arrc/public-review-papers/stroke-and-acupuncture-the-evidence-for-effectiveness.html There has been considerable interest because in China it is not uncommon for people to begin  a course of acupuncture treatment within hours of a stroke in order to remobilise the energy of the body as quickly as possible.

The paper doesn't make much mention of dysphagia, though, and for that we have had to look at wider evidence sources. The best summary is here

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23000511.

A systematic review is a means of aggregating the results of many different trials and is seen as a very effective way of building up a wider picture than a small trial can offer. The results are encouraging, although as always there is criticism of the design studies and methodological rigour of many of the tests. This is usually to do with the fact that most studies are performed in China and are less concerned with whether acupuncture works - 2500 years of history says it does - than with what works better. We are still held to account for whether it works at all, which requires a very strict and not entirely appropriate trial design.

There was one rather interesting study published in  2016 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4810993/ which looks really encouraging but the technique describes pharyngeal acupuncture, and we doubt that you will find many UK practitioners either trained in this technique or willing to do it. There are also a growing number of practitioners using scalp acupuncture, for which there are two or three main systems, and great claims are made for their success in treating neurological problems, but here the research is very thin. If you can find someone who works with this method near where you live it may be worth having a chat with them.

We always advise prospective patients to visit a BAcC member local to them for a chat. Everyone is unique and different, and with cases like stroke recovery there are so many confounding factors that it is always best to find a way of getting a face to face assessment. There are no magic formulae to apply, but there are often signs which a practitioner can use to assess how well someone is likely to respond. This is invaluable for offering a prognosis.

From a Chinese medicine perspective there are many ways of regarding functional disturbances, and given the general agreement about what causes a stroke in energetic terms it is sometimes possible to track the functional disturbances which flow from this to the problems with swallowing in a way which offers direct treatment possibilities.

We are always cautious, however; the longer a symptom has been in place the more difficult it can be to move, a view shared with conventional medicine in looking at post-stroke recovery. If the problem arises from a head injury rather than an infarct, though, there may be good reasons to believe that acupuncture treatment may be able to help, however long after the injury a person is treated.

 

Q: I had chemotherapy 4years ago, I lost my finger and toe nails. Since I have suffered terrible discomfort in my feet. I now find it hard to sleep because of the pain. Would acupuncture help?

A: We are sorry to hear of your problems after chemotherapy, and hope that the treatment worked for the condition at which it was aimed.

As you can imagine we have been asked before about neuropathy induced by chemotherapy, and a typical answer has been:


There is a growing body of evidence which suggests that acupuncture can be very effective in helping to reduce the severity of peripheral neuropathy (PN) induced by chemotherapy and to speed up the rate of recovery. If you search on google using the terms ' ncbi acupuncture neuropathy chemotherapy' you will access a major American research database gathering studies from all of the established online collections like PubMed and Medline. The first half dozen results point to a number of recent studies which show very encouraging results, but most of which conclude that a much larger study is warranted before any definite conclusions can be reached. This is not uncommon; research funding for acupuncture is not that freely available in the West, and Chinese studies are often regarded as methodologically unreliable. There is certainly enough to say that acupuncture treatment will probably help.

We have to be careful not to get too drawn into a conventional medicine perspective when answering questions like this, though. If there has been physical damage to the nerve endings then the condition is less likely to be reversible, although there is some cutting edge research which does suggest that peripheral nerves can regenerate. If the nerves are not too badly affected, however, it is important from a Chinese medicine perspective to see how the chemotherapy has affected the whole system. A symptom can be generated by any number of functional disturbances as understood within Chinese physiology, and can also arise from a simple blockage in the flow of energy at a local level. Problems like neuropathy are often a manifestation of both phenomena, and offer a number of treatment options. The skill of the practitioner lies in seeing how the system as a whole is functioning to narrow down the possibilities for treatment selection.

This does not mean that acupuncture can achieve miracles where modern medicine cannot. What we find, however, is that where western medicine assumes a direct causal path between the chemicals and the nerve damage or loss of function, Chinese medicine offers a number of potential routes where, for example, the chemotherapy may have affected a functional unit which in turn has weakened the energy at the periphery.  This is turn may offer a slightly different focus for treatment with better chance of success.

It also explains why people are often confused by the fact that the same symptom  can be apparently treated twenty different ways. From the Chinese medicine perspective the symptom is often only an alarm bell sounding for wider-ranging imbalances, and the practitioner will always look at the overall context to determine how to proceed.

Having looked at this as an answer we think it still represents the best advice that we can offer. We have had another look at the databases, and there has been nothing new since we wrote the earlier reply. Franconi's systematic review, a paper which gathers together results from all other papers, is perhaps the most recent and best summary, but as we said in the earlier reply, he concludes that the results, while encouraging, are far from conclusive.

What we didn't say is that most BAcC members are more than happy to take a look at problems for prospective patients by giving up a few minutes without charge. A short face to face assessment is always going to be far more authoritative than anything we can offer at this remove, so it would be worthwhile contacting BAcC members local to you to see what they think. This also gives you a chance to meet them and see where they work before committing to treatment.

Q: Can acupuncture help with post herpetic neuralgia?

A: As you might imagine we have been asked about this many times over the years, and a recent answer was:

Shingles can be a terribly distressing condition whose after-effects can persist for months or even years. The treatment of post herpetic pain is an area which has been heavily researched in China, as our factsheet http://www.acupuncture.org.uk/a-to-z-of-conditions/a-to-z-of-conditions/herpes.html says, but the quality of trials is not that great. There is a comprehensive systematic review of all available trials, but this was only announced last year and has not yet been published. We ourselves have treated many cases of shingles, and we have to be honest and say that there has been a significant number of cases where it has been very difficult indeed to reduce the pain, which as we are sure you know can be excruciating.

However, there is no point in being unduly pessimistic. There have been cases of post-herpetic pain where the acupuncture treatment has made significant inroads into the symptoms from a mixture of constitutional treatment to bring balance back to the system as a whole and local treatment to reduce some of the irritation and inflammation. Generally speaking, it is better to start treatment as soon as possible after an attack, just as the use of conventional anti-viral medicines is favoured as early as possible. However, the reality is that most patients present with post-herpetic pain long after they attack and usually because the side-effects of the long-term medication are becoming a problem, so we are used to adopting a slightly different approach from that used in China, where needling often commences with days of an attack starting.

The best advice that we can give is that you visit a BAcC member local to you for a brief face to face assessment. The one caution we always voice in these cases is that if you decide to go ahead with treatment you set review dates for assessing progress and also try to set specific outcome measures, objective evidence that the condition is improving. This can be quite difficult with chronic conditions like this which can still have acute episodes, but it is really important to try to find a marker which can show that there has been progress. We would feel confident, though, that acupuncture treatment might offer some benefit in pain relief and recovery. The only question to resolve is how much and how sustainable the relief is, which is why we are always cautious in setting clear outcomes measures and review periods.

The great strength of Chinese medicine, though, is that each patient is unique and different, even though their symptoms be the same. This means that a skilled practitioner, and all of our members are, would be able to make links that we cannot do at this distance, and may be able to recommend other things that may help alongside acupuncture treatment. We would strongly recommend that you visit a local BAcC member for advice, and hope that it puts you on a path to finding some relief.

We have had a good look through the research databases to see what further evidence is available (the fact sheet seems to stop around 2008) and we have found a few which are positively encouraging, such as:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21639941

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22502623

but the systematic review proposed in 2014 has still to be completed (at least we can find no trace of a publication by the principal author).

The advice we gave earlier holds good, and that is to visit a local BAcC member for an informal chat about what may be possible. This is by far the best way to get a clear idea of your prospects, and most members are only too happy to see prospective patients in this way.

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