The brain is something that continues to fascinate me especially after reading such books like My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor and The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge.
There is one passage in The Brain that Changes Itself that really caught my attention. One scientist recounts a story of his father having a stroke and losing function on one side of his body. At this time the standard course of stroke recovery treatment was 1 month. It was believed due to the research at that time that whatever function that could be recovered after a stroke happened in the first month and after that no further improvements could be expected and so treatment was discontinued. This scientist assisted his father in re-learning everything by starting him out just like a child. First he practiced crawling, and then walking. He would wash dishes in circular motions to strengthen his weak arm until he fully recovered. What they discovered was that after a month's time the body goes into a period of integration. It takes time for the body and the brain to assimilate to all of these new changes. Once this integration period is over the body and brain are capable of learning more.
This was an "a-ha moment" for me because it so clearly shows the subtle processes of the body's abilities to heal. Which is exactly what acupuncture is: a process of healing that can be very subtle.
Several years after this man recovered from his stroke he was rock climbing and died from a heart attack. When they autopsied his brain they discovered that the brain did not heal from the stroke in the way they thought. Instead of the brain healing the damaged area of the brain from the stroke it simply rewired itself and used other areas of the brain to relearn activities of daily living.
Acupuncture works in much the same ways. The acupuncture needles work as a conduit for electrical impulses in the body stimulating healing. Acupuncture points are areas that run along different channels (meridians) of the body. The insertion of needles is said to facilitate improved circulation of qi (energy) and blood through the body. The root of any disharmony, dysfunction, or disease can be traced back to stagnation somewhere in the body. Acupuncture looks to correct the disharmony on the deepest level not just to relieve a symptom. In this way acupuncture becomes an aid for the body to facilitate its healing process rather than a dependency where the body relies on the acupuncture to complete the work (much like pharmaceutical drugs). In terms of stroke recovery it can assist the brain in making new pathways to relearn how to talk, walk etc by improving circulation to all organ systems making the body stronger and able to recover faster between periods of integration.
Again, as stated in previous postings acupuncture is part of a holistic system of health. In addition to acupuncture, herbal medicine should also be utilized as well as proper nutrition to allow for optimal health. When I was in China the stroke unit consisted of a community approach to the recovery of the patient. Patients would stay in the hospital for a minimum of 6 months where they would receive daily (sometimes 3x daily) acupuncture treatments, Chinese Massage (tui na), and herbal medicine in addition to physical therapy and other western medical interventions. The family of the patient was also active in the care plan to support this process.
I have personally seen recoveries from strokes using acupuncture but one of the most striking stories of acupuncture and stroke was a patient I treated while in clinicals at the Midwest College of Oriental Medicine. This particular patient was paralyzed completely on the left side of his body and was unable to speak. He was confined to a wheel chair and required the assistance of a personal nurse. When he first started treatment he was there primarily because of the tenacity of his son-in-law who refused to give up on him. He came in for treatment every week and drank herbal remedies daily. He was an older gentleman and was angry and withdrawn in the beginning but 6 months later he regained use of his left arm, was able to talk, and most importantly regained his smile.
Sarah Zender LAc
Whole Health Acupuncture 50 Turner Ave Elk Grove Village IL 847.357.3929