How Acupuncture Can Help Stroke Recovery

The integrative medicine practice of acupuncture may be helpful for people recovering from stroke. Specifically, new research suggests it can help with aphasia, the loss of speech, which about one-third of stroke survivors have. That’s according to the journal Stroke.

New research shows that acupuncture for stroke patients can be very beneficial in treating aphasia. Tricia Smith, a UPMC acupuncturist who works with people recovering from a stroke, explains how and why acupuncture helps people who have trouble talking.

Acupuncture involves placing very thin needles at precise points on the body, called acupuncture points. When a trained practitioner inserts the needles, it helps promote healing.

People use acupuncture to get relief from a whole range of conditions. This includes back and neck pain, migraine, joint pain, depression, nausea, irritable bowel syndrome, and many other ailments — including stroke and aphasia.

When stroke survivors add acupuncture to their physical therapy and speech therapy regimen, it can make a big difference in their recovery.

Promising Research on Acupuncture and Stroke Recovery

Research published in JAMA in January 2024 studied whether acupuncture therapy could improve aphasia, a language and comprehension issue. People with aphasia may struggle with word recognition, scrambled speech, and reading and writing problems.

The study was a randomized clinical trial involving 252 people in China who had aphasia as a result of a stroke.

Researchers divided the people into two roughly equal groups. Half got true acupuncture, and the other half got “sham” acupuncture. (Sham acupuncture uses real needles but puts them in places that aren’t active acupuncture points.)

Both groups also did conventional treatments, including speech therapy.

Compared to the control group, people who received real acupuncture had significantly improved language function, quality of life, and neurological impairment compared to those who got sham acupuncture.

“What I like about this study is that it shows acupuncture can be a meaningful add-on to existing therapies,” says Smith, who treats stroke patients with acupuncture at UPMC’s Center for Integrative Medicine. She wasn’t involved in this study, but the results match what she sees with patients.

“Basically, acupuncture helps speed up the results of speech and physical therapy,” Smith says.

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Is Acupuncture Good for Stroke Patients?

Smith has worked with a few dozen stroke survivors at the UPMC Center for Integrative Medicine. She hopes to raise awareness about acupuncture’s benefits for stroke patients, especially when combined with traditional recovery therapies.

“It’s not an either/or,” she says. “Acupuncture can be a key part of the rehabilitation process.”

People who mix conventional physical and occupational therapies with acupuncture often get the best results. But many people don’t know acupuncture can help stroke patients.

For stroke recovery, acupuncture can be used to stimulate the damaged area of the brain. We already know that acupuncture can stimulate the brain from older acupuncture research studies using functional MRI machines (fMRI).

“Acupuncture has an immediate effect on the central nervous system. fMRI studies have shown that if you needle an acupuncture point on the body, a corresponding zone of the brain will light up,” she explains. “If you needle a different point, another part of the brain will light up.”

So, if a person has damage to the part of the brain that produces speech, the acupuncture treatment plan can target that area. “The most common approach is scalp acupuncture, combined with other body points,” Smith says.

Putting needles near the damaged brain area stimulates the brain’s neuroplasticity. “It can reprogram the neural connections in the area of the brain damaged by stroke,” Smith says.

It also improves blood circulation to the area, which helps repair damaged brain tissue.

Acupuncture Therapy for Stroke Patients: What to Expect

When Smith works with a stroke survivor, she gets a sense of the person’s other health concerns. “I usually treat someone for more than just one symptom,” she says.

To perform scalp acupuncture, she finds the right scalp points and stimulates them with thin needles. “Most people find it pretty comfortable,” she says.

People sit or lie down in recliners. “We get them as comfortable as possible,” she says. In addition to the scalp stimulation, she will work to target their peripheral nerves. “We use a low-level electrical stimulation, similar to a TENS machine.”

The electrical stimulation wakes up nerve pathways that have lost their connection to the brain’s control center. “We’re trying to get small muscle twitch responses,” she says. “It’s part of rewiring the peripheral nerves to the part of the brain that controls that side of the body.”

A session usually takes about an hour. “You can start to see small changes within just a few sessions,” she says.

A course of treatment usually consists of 12 treatments. It works best when people can come two to three times a week for four to six weeks. Within those 12 treatments, Smith has seen a range of results, but “we almost always see improvement,” she says.

If You’ve Had a Stroke, Don’t Wait to Schedule Acupuncture

“Someone who gets treatment a few weeks to a few months after stroke generally responds faster than someone who had a stroke a few years ago,” Smith says. If she can see people within the first year post-stroke, the outcome will likely be better.

That’s why she encourages people to start acupuncture along with their physical therapy and speech therapy. “In China, acupuncture is part of the standard of care,” she says. “They start treating people within a few days after a stroke.”

Acupuncture is safe for stroke survivors when you see a provider with experience in stroke protocols.

At UPMC’s Center for Integrative Medicine, the practitioners work closely with each other. For example, if Smith treats someone for stroke who also has depression or anxiety, she’ll refer to colleagues who do talk therapy. “We work together for you,” she says.

As for the needles? It’s a constant question she gets from people of all ages (including kids). Don’t let fear be the thing that stops you, she says. “You’d be surprised at just how comfortable it can be.”

To schedule an appointment, call 412-623-3023.

Stroke. Predictors of Poststroke Aphasia Recovery. Link

JAMA. Effect of Acupuncture vs Sham Acupuncture on Patients With Poststroke Motor Aphasia. Link

About UPMC

Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 800 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. We are dedicated to providing Life Changing Medicine to our communities.