A stroke is caused by a disturbance of the blood supply to the brain. The blood vessels that normally supply blood to the brain can be compromised by becoming blocked or bleeding. This results in a deficient blood supply to the brain tissue and these events can be precipitated by a variety of factors such as raised blood pressure, hardening of the arteries and severe head injury. The brain is divided into many different functional areas, one area controlling speech, while another dominates the sensations of touch and pain. The functional impairment that occurs with a stroke depends on the area of the brain that is damaged; if the speech area is damaged by a lack of blood supply then the patient may be unable to speak properly.
In China, acupuncture is the standard treatment for strokes. In the West, the mainstays of stroke treatment are speech therapy, physiotherapy and occupational therapy, but the Chinese feel that these methods have less to offer than acupuncture. Both scalp and body acupuncture are techniques that can be used to aid recovery from a stroke. The research work so far completed suggests that acupuncture increases the blood supply to the brain, and for some unexplained reason this seems to improve functional ability and acts as a stimulus to recovery after a stroke.

Clinical trials completed by the Chinese state that some effect can be gained from acupuncture in about 80 per cent of strokes. These trials are difficult to interpret clearly as a significant number of stroke patients recover spontaneously; furthermore, the Chinese trials are poorly designed and the exact definition of the success and failure of treatment is unclear. The success rate claimed is very high but to some extent this success rate is mirrored by the experience of a variety of doctors in the West. Whatever criticism one has about Chinese research methods, Western medicine often has little to offer the stroke patient and therefore acupuncture is always worth considering. Ideally strokes should be treated within six months of the damage occurring. The patient may continue to benefit for up to two years after the stroke but, as a rule, acupuncture can effect little improvement if the damage has been present for more than two years.

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Written by George T. Lewith MA MRCGP MRCP

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