Find an acupuncturist...

Ask an expert - neuro and psycho logical - stroke

14 questions

Q:  My husband has had a stroke and he also has weakness on the left side.  He also had a heart attack this May and had a pacemaker fitted. He has difficulty walking.  Can acupuncture help him. If so how many treatments would he need to see any improvement.

A:  We are very sorry to hear about your husband's problems.  Either problem would be bad enough in itself but the two together are a major  burden.  With such a complex background it is very difficult to say sight unseen whether acupuncture would be of great benefit to your husband. Certainly there is some hope if the difficulty in walking arises from the stroke. In China it is not uncommon for people who have had a stroke to be given acupuncture daily or twice daily as soon as they are admitted to
hospital, the idea being that the energies of the body have been disrupted, and the quicker the flow is reinstated the better. In this country this is not yet a popular option, so we tend to see people a little later down the line, often after conventional treatment has reached a point where there has been no further progress. In the circumstances progress tends to be a little slower, but over time there can be some very positive changes. This is very difficult to show by research, because there is often a process of natural recovery alongside the acupuncture treatment, and deciding what has been the cause of improvement can be difficult.

The confounding factor is the heart attack. This can also be a major contributory factor to difficulties in walking, and without being able to assess the impact of the two events on the energy of the body by direct observation it is really hard to be able to offer good advice. We often advise people to see a BAcC member local to them for a chat about whether acupuncture treatment would be a good option, and in most cases they are happy to do this without charge in order to give a balanced view of whether treatment would be worthwhile.

The imponderable would be how many sessions it might take to see improvement. This is really impossible to say. We have all had the experience of fit young people taking months to get better, and seemingly impossible cases changing overnight, so we are never happy to venture guesses. What we do say, though, is that a practitioner should review progress after the first four or five sessions, and then maintain a constant review if it seems worth continuing. We always advise members to establish with a patient a good set of measurable outcomes - distances walked, times on fee, etc - to provide some objective as possible measure of progress. Otherwise a lot will come down
to how someone feels on the day, which is never a reliable option.


Q:  5 years ago a colleague suffered brain damage after a serious car smash. He was in a coma for three days and has been left with stroke like disability in his left arm and leg. He has feeling down to his wrist but little in his hand. would accupuncture help in any way to restore nerve function?


possible after the stroke in ten day courses to try to restore the function in the affected limbs. The research is not conclusive, and we cannot give an unequivocal recommendation, but as our fact sheet on stroke shows

please click here
 and a much more detailed review paper please click here
 there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that acupuncture treatment may be of benefit.
This is not quite the same as restoring nerve function, and we would not make any claims of this kind. From a western medical point of view, when most nerve function has been lost or compromised there are serious difficulties in recovering what has been lost. Chinese medicine is based on a theory that the body mind and emotions are all manifestations of the flow of energy, called 'qi', in the body. When this flow is blocked or impaired, as is the case with a stroke, then the aim is to restore the flow and try to recover the functions which have been lost.
However, your friend hasn't had a stroke but instead a serious car smash, and to some extent it would be unfair to use information based on a naturally occurring phenomenon as a basis for comment on what may or may not be possible in his case. If there has been substantial damage to the tissue of the brain, then there may not be any possibility of recovery, and it would be wrong of us to create hope or expectation. However, you could do a lot worse than see if a BAcC member local to you can give him a short face to face assessment of what acupuncture may be able to achieve, based on what the practitioner can actually observe. We are sure that he will get an honest and realistic view.
It may also be worth mentioning cranial osteopathy as a modality which may have something to offer. This is based on a number of theories in which the structural integrity of the skill is crucial, and while it more often addresses subtle changes which can have a profound effect on function, there is no reason in principle why it should have an effect here. It is highly likely that your local BAcC member may be able to give you a good referral; many work closely with other local practitioners and have a network of trusted colleagues with whom they cross-refer patients. 

A: We have published a rather dense review paper on our website please click here  
which is perhaps aimed more at the medical reader than the public, but the bottom line is that there is an increasing amount of eviden which suggests that acupuncture may be of considerable benefit for treating people who have suffered strokes. However, since much of the research takes place in China and is not always as methodologically rigorous as in the West, it is not yet considered good enough to make a firm recommendation. This is not because the research is sloppy, by the way. The main problem is that acupuncture is already believed to work by the Chinese, so research is often focused on what works better or best. In the West people still aren't wholly convinced that it works, so take issue with studies which don't make this the priority.
In China acupuncture is often used to treat stroke victims, often within hours of the stroke and as much as possible within the first few weeks. The underlying belief is that the stroke has severely disrupted the flow of energy, called 'qi', in the channels of flow, and it is this disruption which causes the temporary paralysis and spasms associated with strokes. The acupuncture is used to reinstate the proper flow, and that's why it is administered so quickly. The longer it is left untreated, the more the untoward patterns become locked in and harder to shift. In the West, where people often come to acupuncture as a last resort after six months of other treatments, this can reduce the effectiveness of treatment a little.
Everyone is different, though, and it is this factor which is central to diagnosis and treatment planning in Chinese medicine which makes it difficult to generalise about all cases. The best advice always is to discuss the unique presentation with a BAcC local to you and see what they say. Most of our members are more than happy to give up some time to assess with a potential patient face to face whether treatment may be of benefit, and we trust that they are honest enough to tell you if they think it isn't.        



Q. My father has post stroke pain ,  please can you tell us if there is any scientific evidence that acupuncture is helpful for patients suffering from post stroke pain.  our reason for asking this is that we are in the process of challenging our local hospital that is refusing him treatment. Many thanks.


A. The short answer is 'no'. Scientific evidence of a kind which satisfies the current gold standard of western research, the randomised double  blind control trial, is in short supply. This, however, is mainly a methodological problem; the practice of traditional acupuncture does not lend itself to standardisation and reducing variables. A review paper on the current evidence for the use of acupuncture after stroke can be found on our website here
Although the evidence for the use of acupuncture is not accepted in the West acupuncture is very widely used in China and the Far East for assisting in recovery after stroke. It is not unusual for someone who has had a stroke to receive a course of treatment almost immediately after the initial stage of recovery has passed, and the accepted wisdom is that the earlier treatment starts, the more effective it will be. This does not always work so well in the West, where many patients turn to acupuncture only after conventional methods of treatment are not working as well as they had hoped, and the delay in starting acupuncture treatment may make it less effective.
You say that your father's hospital is refusing him treatment, but it is not clear whether this is because they doubt the effectiveness of acupuncture and will not fund it or whether this is because they have concerns about the treatment itself. If it is the former you may well have a struggle to convince them. Evidence based on clinical trials is very much the determining factor. If it because of uncertainty about the safety of treatment the Council has on many occasions been happy to provide evidence that acupuncture in the hands of a properly trained practitioner is extremely safe.


Page 3 of 3

Post a question

If you have any questions about acupuncture, browse our archive or ask an expert.

Ask an expert

BAcC Factsheets

Research based factsheets have been prepared for over 60 conditions especially for this website

Browse the facts