There are millions of stroke survivors in China and around the world. Most of them did not get treatment quickly enough, so they experienced the full range of negative conditions. Still, patients who undergo extensive rehabilitation in a stroke unit enjoy a better chance of surviving the stroke. They are also likelier to retain their independence and have better bodily functions. In China, rehabilitation programs for stroke survivors include acupuncture sessions. Electroacupuncture and scalp acupuncture are two of the commonly used methods.
The use of acupuncture to treat stroke and associated problems is a divisive topic among stroke experts. Some studies indicated that the treatment was ineffective in recovering functions, improving daily living activities, and improving the health and quality of life of the patient. Others reported that acupuncture did exert positive effects on stroke patients during rehabilitation. However, they added that these benefits were limited. (Related: Clinical trials show that acupuncture is an effective treatment for asthma.)
The conflicting reports led researchers from Zhejiang Chinese Medical University to undertake a clinical study with high quality and significant statistical power. They sought to determine if acupuncture could improve the neurological problems, motor dysfunctions, swallowing issues, and cognitive impairment caused by an acute ischemic stroke.
They assembled a large group of participants who had been hospitalized due to acute ischemic stroke and paralysis of one side of the body. These 250 patients received standard rehabilitation treatment, which included two-hour periods of physiotherapy and occupational therapy for six days every week. In addition to the conventional treatment, some of the patients also received acupuncture treatment. The acupuncture sessions lasted 30 minutes and were administered for six days per week. The trial lasted for three whole weeks. Researchers assessed the primary and secondary outcomes of the patients at the start of the experiment, the first and third weeks of the trial, and seven weeks afterward.
The primary outcome was a neurological deficit. The secondary outcomes were motor functions of the upper and lower extremities, swallowing function, and the cognitive function. The researchers also evaluated the safety of acupuncture based on any adverse reactions experienced by the patients.
The researchers reported that patients who received acupuncture treatment displayed significantly better neurological functions. The acupuncture group also reported improved function of their lower extremities, swallowing, and cognitive function. While the treatment clearly benefited lower extremities that were affected by stroke-related paralysis, it did not improve upper extremities. When this was taken into consideration, the overall motor function score did not show much improvement.
The researchers theorized that upper extremities involved finer motor control, which required a higher level of recovery than that provided by acupuncture. They also believed that acupuncture improved stroke-related neurological deficit through different aspects, given it was able to greatly improve the swallowing function.
A few cases of adverse reactions developed in response to acupuncture. However, these reactions were mild and posed no danger to the patients, suggesting that the treatment is safe enough to be used routinely.
Based on these results, acupuncture could be considered to be a multi-effect treatment, having shown it could aid the recovery of different neuroprotective, microcirculatory, and metabolic systems that have been affected by the stroke.
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