Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for Stroke

A stroke, also known as a cerebrovascular accident (CVA), occurs when an artery leading to the brain or within the brain either is blocked by a clot or bursts, causing part of the brain to start to die. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) can offer hope to those who have suffered from disabilities and pain caused by a stroke by helping the patient recover and regain use of disabled parts of the body, reduce pain and depression, improve blood flow to the brain, and improve memory and speech. TCM treatments generally used for stroke patients include acupuncture and herbal remedies. Acupuncture has been found to create a positive effect on improving daily functioning of people who have had a stroke. Acupuncture can improve motor function and provide an effective complementary treatment for assisting with stroke recovery, especially when used within the first six months of the stroke. Several Chinese herbs and formulas also can help with circulation to the brain to help alleviate symptoms and restore functioning.

Treating Stroke with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)

Many different long-term lifestyle choices may eventually result in a stroke. These include emotional stress, working long hours without enough rest, excessive and strenuous physical activities, irregular eating habits, poor diet and excessive sexual activity. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), these choices weaken the kidney and the spleen, creating deficiencies of Qi (energy), Blood, and Yin. These deficiencies cause the body to be overwhelmed by Wind, Phlegm, Fire and Stasis. This results in stroke-related patterns such as Wind in the Meridians, Liver Wind, Liver Yang Rising, Stasis of Chi or Blood, or Phlegm combining with Fire. These chronic weaknesses in the body’s energy movements eventually block the flow of blood through the brain. To treat stroke, the goal of a TCM practitioner is to eliminate the phlegm, remove blood stasis, tonify the kidney and induce resuscitation.

Chinese Herbal Medicine for Stroke

When prescribing Chinese herbal medicine for a patient that has suffered a stroke, great care is taken to differentiate the appropriate pattern of disharmony that has brought upon the incident. In acute cases, determining whether the stroke was physically caused by ischemia (obstruction of a vessel causing a lack of blood supply) or hemorrhagia (a burst vessel causing bleeding within the cranium) helps determine the course of treatment. While herbal treatment can be an effective form of therapy during the acute stage of a stroke, more often patients visit a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner in the latter stages for treatment of lingering stroke symptoms. In these post-acute stages, opening the blood vessels and promoting the flow of blood are the primary goals when prescribing herbal treatments for stroke. Blood stasis often remains after the stroke, obstructing the meridians (energy pathways). Traditional formulas include Zheng Gan Xi Feng Tang (Control Liver Extinguish Wind Decoction) and Bu Yang Huan Wu Tang (Tonify Yang Give Back 50% Decoction), useful for hemiplegia, weakness, aphasia, and other sequelae of cardiovascular incidents.

For dementia patients who have suffered strokes, the Chinese herbal medicine called gastrodine (Tian Ma) compound granule has shown benefits and compare favorably with conventional treatments. In a randomized double-blind study, this medicine demonstrated effectiveness in improving impaired memory, orientation, language and other effects of stroke in patients who were diagnosed with mild to moderate vascular dementia (VaD) after a stroke.

Ren Shen Zai Zao Wan, or Ginseng restorative pills, stimulate blood circulation, tonify blood, yin, and energy, and dispel stagnation. It is used primarily for symptoms such as contractive or flaccid muscle tone in extremities, speech impediments, facial paralysis, and numbness and tingling in limbs. This remedy is best given immediately following a stroke, and is available in prepared form (pills).

Chinese herbs are not regulated, and may not be measured precisely, as is done in Western pharmacological medicine. Caution should be observed when considering their use, as there may be variations among formulations and batches. Always taking Chinese herbal medicine for stroke under the guidance of an experienced practitioner.

Acupuncture for Stroke

Acupuncture can be an effective complementary treatment to use alongside conventional Western medicine used for stroke recovery. Acupuncture can assist with nerve regeneration, decrease blood viscosity, stop the aggregation of blood cells, trigger the release of hormones that enlarges blood vessels, and assist surviving nerve cells with bypassing damaged parts of the brain and creating new pathways. Studies have demonstrated that acupuncture is effective in assisting with stroke recovery, especially for those with moderately severe damage. Acupuncture also may help treat hypertension, headaches and dizziness among those who have experienced a stroke. In addition, acupuncture combined with pushing manipulation on the fingers of stroke patients who have difficulty using their fingers leads to significantly improved finger flexion.

Several forms of acupuncture treatment are utilized in stroke recovery. Electro-acupuncture involves applying a pulsating electrical current to acupuncture needles to further stimulate the acupuncture points, which enhances the level of stimulation of the acupuncture points and can lead to greater improvements in muscle tone and restoration of mental faculties. Scalp acupuncture is another method of acupuncture treatment that is effective in post-stroke patients. Various studies have shown the benefits of this form of acupuncture therapy for hemiplegia and other neurological disorders. During scalp acupuncture, needles are inserted between the layers of skin on the scalp to stimulate local areas of the brain, and it primarily follows the modern medical understanding of neurological mappings of brain activity.

Acupuncture points used for stroke are focused on balancing the body based upon the differential diagnosis formed by the acupuncturist. Often the selected points include Gallbladder 20, Large Intestine 4, Du 20, Kidney 6 and Stomach 36. Acupuncture treatment should be given several times a week during the recovery stage to yield the best clinical results.

Combining Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Herbs and Acupuncture

One of the benefits of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is the flexibility it offers patients. Acupuncture and Chinese herbal treatments can be used at the same time for even more effective relief. In cases of post-stroke depression, the combination of herbs with acupuncture can be just as effective as Western medical treatments.

What is Stroke?

Stroke is a form of heart disease that affects the arteries leading toward and within the brain. When a blood vessel that carries oxygen and nutrients to the brain either bursts or is blocked by a clot, part of the brain cannot get the oxygen it needs and starts to die. Whatever region of the brain is affected will, in turn, affect the part of the body it controls. Then the body part won’t function properly. Stroke is the third-leading cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease and cancer. The results of stroke can include paralysis or loss of muscle control, especially on one side of the body, such as the side of the face; memory loss; difficulty understanding concepts; difficulty eating, swallowing or talking; and/or numbness, pain or other strange sensations in parts of the body.

What is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a form of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) treatment used to balance the flow of the internal energy in the body. Fine needles are inserted into acupoints on the body and are manipulated to alter the flow of energy, which the Chinese call Qi. The acupuncture points, mapped out by the Chinese for thousands of years, follow energy channels, called meridians, that correspond to internal organ systems. Sometimes the needles are manipulated with mild electrical stimulation, with heat, or manually.

Additional Resources

Traditional Chinese medicine helps stroke patients” from the Association for Asian Research.

Evaluating Needles” from the American Stroke Association.

Does acupuncture work for stroke rehabilitation: what do recent clinical trials really show?”, Top Stroke Rehabil. 2007 Jul-Aug;14(4):40-58.

Clinical observation on acupuncture with pushing manipulation for treatment of finger flexion in the patient of poststroke”, Section of Acupuncture and Moxibustion, Heilongjiang Provincial Academy of TCM, Harbin 150036, China.

Clinical observation on penetration needling combined with electroacupuncture for treatment of post-stroke shoulder-hand syndrome”, Section of Acupuncture & Moxibustion, Beijing Hospital of TCM Affiliated to Capital Medical University, Beijing 100010, China.

Herbal Medicine in Stroke”, Valery L. Feigin, MD, MSc, PhD, FAAN

"A Chinese Stroke Connection," Stroke Connection Magazine, March/April 2006.

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