Acupuncture Improves Swallowing Difficulties after a Stroke
Stroke is an event marked by either loss of blood flow to or bleeding into an area of the brain. The affected area of the brain is damaged, resulting in some degree of loss of body functions controlled by nerves associated with the damaged area. The swallowing reflex is frequently affected and dysphagia occurs in 30 to 50% of people who have experienced stroke. In most cases, recovery occurs without treatment, but in some it is slow or does not occur. Those who do not recover will require long-term nursing care. People with dysphagia are at high risk of dehydration, malnutrition, choking, and pneumonia.
Several therapies have been used to treat dysphagia. Applications of cold to the inside of the throat (thermal treatments) and electrical stimulation to specific points on the neck have both been used to give some immediate but temporary relief from dysphagia. One study comparing these treatments found that thermal treatments applied for one hour every day were not as effective as electrical stimulation. In another preliminary study, electrical stimulation was applied across a specific muscle in the neck that was found to be weak in all of the participants. Electrical stimulation was applied for four hours every day until improvement in swallowing was achieved. Treatment was effective for 20 of 23 people in this study, and the number of days of treatment ranged from 2 to 30 days. Dysphagia returned within nine months in 30% of those who responded to the treatment, but they all improved again after a second course of electrical stimulation.
In the current study, 41 people with dysphagia following a stroke were treated with acupuncture. A single 15-minute treatment with acupuncture was applied to both legs at two points that were chosen following traditional Chinese medicine practices. The swallowing reflex was triggered by placing 1 ml of water into the throat and the time between introduction of the water and the onset of swallowing was measured. This measurement was taken before and 30 minutes after treatment with acupuncture. The average time to onset of swallowing was 10.2 seconds before treatment and 4.5 seconds after treatment, an improvement of more than 55%. In a subset of participants who were retested after seven days, the improvement in swallowing was found to persist.
The current study shows that a single, short application of acupuncture has beneficial effects for people with dysphagia due to a stroke. The effect of longer or more frequent treatment and the length of time its benefits are sustained are unknown and should be addressed in future studies.
Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, Vermont, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.
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