The treatment of stroke and phantom limb pain with scalp acupuncture


The treat­ment of stroke and phantom limb pain with scalp Acu­punc­ture.

Acu­punc­ture is a fas­cin­at­ing sci­ence. A year ago, I wrote an art­icle in NOVA on auri­cu­lar acu­punc­ture. A very effect­ive form of ther­apy using very small needles, or met­al pel­lets, which are applied to very pre­cise loc­a­tions of the ear cor­res­pond­ing to spe­cif­ic part of the body. It is often used for the treat­ment of addic­tion and neur­o­lo­gic­al prob­lems. This month, we will look a dif­fer­ent form of acu­punc­ture where the needles are applied exclus­ively to the skull.

Due to its prox­im­ity to the cent­ral nervous sys­tem, this small sec­tion of the head can be seen as a micro­cosm of the whole body. While con­ven­tion­al body acu­punc­ture uses some chan­nel points loc­ated on the top of the head, cra­ni­al acu­punc­ture fol­lows a dif­fer­ent approach out­side the meridi­an rela­tion­ship. In that case, the points are selec­ted accord­ing to their con­nec­tions with spe­cif­ic brain func­tions and their sens­it­iv­ity to touch. In scalp acu­punc­ture, the cra­ni­um is divided into spe­cif­ic zones cor­res­pond­ing to the dif­fer­ent sens­ory and motor areas of the cereb­ral cor­tex. The sec­tion close to the fore­head is used for treat­ing upper body dys­func­tions, and the area behind the ears is stim­u­lated for prob­lems on the lower limbs. Func­tion­al zones, such as sens­ory, memory, and motor, are loc­ated at the back and sides of the head.. Scalp acu­punc­ture acts by increas­ing the blood flow, and oxy­gen sup­ply to the cra­ni­al nerve of the brain. It is com­monly used for the treat­ment of neur­o­lo­gic­al prob­lems includ­ing stroke, as well as a very inter­est­ing med­ic­al con­di­tion called “phantom limb pain “

A cereb­ral stroke occurs when the blood sup­ply to the brain gets tem­por­ally blocked. While nearly one in every fif­teen people will receive some forms of stroke in their life­time, the intens­ity of the attacks var­ies from a barely notice­able tem­por­ary weak­ness or tingling in the joints, to par­tial para­lys­is, coma, and death. The patients who sur­vive a major stroke are often left with para­lys­is to one side of their body. They have dif­fi­culties speak­ing and walk­ing, and they often suf­fer from men­tal con­fu­sion and anguish as a res­ult of their sud­den inab­il­ity to com­mu­nic­ate with their fam­ily mem­bers, and friends. Med­ic­al research has con­firmed that cra­ni­al acu­punc­ture can bring sig­ni­fic­ant improve­ment in cog­nit­ive the patients with the stim­u­la­tion of the nerve cells which were dam­aged dur­ing the stroke. Since one side of the brain con­trols the oppos­ite side of the body, vic­tims who had an attack on the right side of their brain will have loc­al para­lys­is on the left side of their face, and vice versa. Acu­punc­ture fol­lows the same prin­ciple, using for example needles on the right side of the scalp to treat para­lys­is on the left leg.

Using the spe­cif­ic treat­ment zones out­lined in the map of the scalp, the prac­ti­tion­er first chooses the sec­tion which should be stim­u­lated, and then the sur­face of the skin is gently palp­ated for evid­ence of sens­it­iv­ity to touch. Once the points have been selec­ted, the acu­punc­ture needles are inser­ted not in the cra­ni­um, but under the con­nect­ive tis­sue of the scalp at an oblique angle for 30 to 45 minutes. Dur­ing that time, they are stim­u­lated every 10 minutes to increase the blood flow and oxy­gen to the defect­ive area. It is a very gentle and relax­ing tech­nique that the patients quickly learn to enjoy. The treat­ments are sched­uled two to three times a week, accord­ing to the sever­ity of the impair­ment.

While stroke rehab­il­it­a­tion using acu­punc­ture, or oth­er con­ven­tion­al meth­ods, is gen­er­ally a slow pro­cess, there is a fam­ous story of Mr Ming Qing, a gradu­ate from the Shang­hai Uni­ver­sity of Chinese Medi­cine, who obtained mira­cu­lous res­ults at a con­fer­ence in Beijing in 1987, when he per­formed acu­punc­ture on a debil­it­ated stroke patient who instantly began to walk inde­pend­ently.

Cra­ni­al acu­punc­ture has also been used suc­cess­fully in treat­ing anoth­er med­ic­al con­di­tion which I per­son­ally find quite fas­cin­at­ing. “Phantom limb pain” is a strange phe­nomen­on which occurs to over 70 per­cent of patients who have been ampu­tated. It describes the abnor­mal sen­sa­tion that the arm or the leg which has been sur­gic­ally removed is still attached to the body. Patients will com­plain of severe burn­ing, or shoot­ing pain ori­gin­at­ing from their miss­ing limbs which is lit­er­ally driv­ing them crazy. There are con­flict­ing the­or­ies regard­ing the cause of this dis­order. Some spe­cial­ists believe it is caused by ongo­ing stim­u­la­tion of the ampu­tated stump by the severed nerves which are still act­ive, while oth­er stud­ies sug­gest that the phantom limb pain could ori­gin­ate from the area of the brain which con­trolled the miss­ing limb before it was ampu­tated.

Clin­ic­al reports have shown that scalp acu­punc­ture could be an effect­ive form of pain relief for this dis­order. A small Amer­ic­an study was con­duc­ted in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. (Feb. 2006) with sev­en patients. After only one treat­ment, 86% of them repor­ted some degrees of pain relief, and 43% of them showed a sig­ni­fic­ant level of improve­ment. Of course, it was only a small sample, but it gave them hope that their con­di­tion could finally be improved, and this defin­it­ively makes it with invest­ig­at­ing.

Olivi­er Lejus is a registered acu­punc­tur­ist prac­ti­cing in Sydney.


About Olivier Lejus

I was born in France and I emigrated to Australia in 1980. I worked as a circus performer, puppeteer and actor before I began studying Traditional Chinese Medicine a the University of Technology of Sydney in 1997. I graduated in 2000 with a Bachelor of of science degree in Traditional Chinese medicine. I am now specializing in Japanese style acupuncture for the treatment of female and male infertility, pain, and anxiety.

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