Acupuncture Enhances Stroke Recovery


After a stroke, the goal of rehabilitation is to heal the brain through neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to restructure itself by creating new neural connections.

A stroke occurs when there is a blocked artery (ischemic stroke) or sudden loss of blood circulation in the brain from the leaking or bursting of a blood vessel (hemorrhagic stroke). A stroke can affect people in different ways, but common physical conditions after a stroke include weakness, paralysis, balance or coordination problems, pain, numbness or burning, and tingling sensations.

Recovery from a stroke involves making changes in the physical, social, mental, and emotional aspects of one’s life. The changes are necessary to prevent additional strokes as well as to assist in life-long recovery. At the beginning of rehabilitation, it is common to feel frustrated, angry, anxious, or depressed after a stroke. Also, one may feel worried about work, finances, and relationships.

Rehabilitation is critical for getting back to a normal life and continuing to live independently after the rehab. Most rehabilitation centers are equipped with advanced technologies and well-trained professionals to assist patients in achieving that goal. The rehab involves learning new skills and relearning old ones to adapt to new limitations and post-stroke conditions.

In addition to the standard rehabilitation, many people turn to acupuncture to further help with post-stroke recovery. Acupuncture, one of the oldest and most studied healing methods of Traditional Chinese Medicine, is the practice of inserting a fine filiform needle at a specific point (acupoint) or an area along the body to create a spontaneous healing reaction. In China, Japan, and Korea, acupuncture is part of the standard treatment in addition to western rehabilitation therapies to maximize recovery. Acupuncture has been shown to increase cerebral blood flow in the areas of the brain around stroke lesions to promote cell proliferation in the damaged tissue.

What does the science say about acupuncture for stroke?

Research studies have suggested that acupuncture is effective for stroke. In one research review published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews in 2016, the authors stated that acupuncture might improve dependency, overall neurological deficiency, and some specific neurological impairments.

In another research review published in Acupuncture in Medicine in 2015, the authors examined previously published clinical trials and compared acupuncture combined with rehabilitation therapy to rehabilitation alone in patients with three months or less post-stroke. They concluded that acupuncture along with rehabilitation saw significant improvement over standard rehabilitation alone.

Further, a research review published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences in 2017 showed that acupuncture could promote the formation of new cells in the central nervous system (CNS) around the area of the lesions caused by a stroke and promote blood flow to the brain to form new blood vessels. The formation of new blood vessels begins within 12-24 hours following a stroke, which helps restore oxygen and nutrient supplies to damaged tissues and the regeneration of nervous tissue. The findings also suggest acupuncture along with electrical stimulation can help protect cell death after a stroke by suppressing key enzymes (caspases 1 and 3) and by increasing the protective protein B-cell lymphoma 2 (BCL2).

Findings from other studies suggest acupuncture can also help improve swallowing difficulties (dysphagia) and spasticity. A multicenter controlled trial provided early evidence for the effectiveness of acupuncture treatment in enhancing swallowing function and life quality of post-stroke dysphagia patients. Lastly, a systematic review and meta-analysis of the randomized controlled trials showed that acupuncture or electro-acupuncture therapy is effective in decreasing spasticity after stroke.

The Takeaway

Stroke rehabilitation is often a complicated and lengthy process, which can be discouraging due to the slow recovery rate. Acupuncture can be a significant benefit to stroke rehabilitation when administered by a well-trained acupuncturist, and it is cost-effective. The results of acupuncture in stroke rehabilitation indicate that the integration of acupuncture into the standard-care rehabilitation facilities can significantly improve patient outcomes. Unlike patients in China, Japan, and Korea, patients in the US rarely receive simultaneous care after a stroke.

Acupuncture performed within the second or third week after a stroke can provide promising results in enhancing recovery, and waiting too long can diminish the treatment's effectiveness, as cells within the damaged tissues settle into their altered environment. Although in most such cases it is not a licensed, fully trained acupuncturist performing early post-stroke acupuncture, this is a first step to incorporating acupuncture along with a trained licensed acupuncturist into rehabilitation centers.

Call (615) 975-7320 or schedule a consultation to find out more about the benefits of acupuncture for stroke and other health conditions.

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