Can Acupuncture Help Epilepsy?
by Patricia Murphy
A growing number of people with epilepsy are finding that this ancient treatment helps control seizures. Acupuncture, which as been part of China's medical heritage for over 3,000 years, was introduced into the United States and Canada in the 1970's. Since that time, it's become one of the most frequently requested of the complementary therapies (to be used in conjunction with conventional medicine or other treatments.)
"Acupuncture" and "Chinese Medicine" are often used as synonyms; however, traditional Chinese Medicine, abbreviated as TCM, includes diet, herbal remedies and exercises.
Bob Clarke, L.Ac., an acupuncturist at the Open Gate Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine Clinic in Eugene, Oregon, says, "Acupuncture can be quite useful for epilepsy, depending upon the type and extent of a person's epilepsy." He's treated several people with epilepsy and says that treatment helped reduce the frequency and severity of their seizures. "Acupuncture targets the cause of an illness," he says, "although it may take some time for the effects to be felt. People who expect a quick fix will be disappointed. Those who stick with the treatment, though, have a better chance for success." Like many acupuncturists, he includes herbal treatments and dietary recommendations.
This ancient method of preventing and treating illness has a very different basis than Western medicine. To an acupuncturist, vital energy or qi runs through the human body along pathways called meridians. Qi is the life force that is involved in all bodily functions - from metabolism to emotions. In a healthy person, the Chinese believe, the qi flows unimpeded. When the flow or circulation is impeded, illness results. Therefore, the goal of acupuncture is to restore harmony - yin and yang - within the body. Patterns of energy flow through the body just below the surface of the skin.
To balance energy, the acupuncturist inserts sterilized stainless steel needles - little thicker than a hair - at key points along the body to access the twelve channels or meridians where qi flows through the body. (For a person with epilepsy, this would certainly include points that influence brain energy, to increase the flow of blood to the head.) This manipulates the energy flow, to either increase or decrease a person's qi at various points in the body, to help clear energy blockages. To help ensure that the correction in energy flow lasts, many acupuncturists make dietary recommendations and prescribe herbs.
The aim of acupuncture is not to just relieve symptoms, but to treat the cause of the illness - to treat the whole patients and to restore the balance between the physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of the individual.
Acupuncture seeks to help the body heal itself. In acupuncture, anything that is of profound concern to a person's inner or spiritual life is considered to be an important factor in diagnosis and treatment.
Acupuncture is not a self-help treatment - it must be performed by a licensed practitioner. A few people have found that acupuncture has the opposite effect and may actually stimulate seizures. It may be that the acupuncturists aren't very skilled or it's possible that, like some treatments, you feel worse before you get better. Or perhaps it just doesn't work for you.
Whereas a physician takes our pulse to measure processes like heartbeat and blood loss, an acupuncturist reading our pulse obtains much more information about organs such as the stomach, spleen and liver, etc. To an acupuncturist, the pulse shows the state of the qi energy systems, which mainstream medicine doesn't even consider. He or she divides the pulse into twelve main parts, six to a wrist, that correspond to the twelve main qi energy systems of our body. Each organ is associated with a particular type of energy and each energy flowers through the meridian. By determining how energy is flowing throughout an individual's body, a practitioner decides where to place the needles.
Studies in China have shown acupuncture to be a safe, reliable way to reduce or lower seizure activity. (According to Bob Clarke, fewer than 5 percent of Chinese studies on acupuncture have been translated into English.) One study indicated that treatment of epilepsy with herbs, acupuncture and massage had the best results.1
One German study involved 98 people with epilepsy, ranging in age from 2-52. All drugs were discontinued during the first weeks of therapy. Acupuncture treatments lasted from 1 - 18 months, and 65 people showed marked improvements with an absence of seizures during a one-year period without drugs. Afterwards, patients received acupuncture maintenance treatments once over 2-3 months. Relapses occurred in 5 cases.2 "In my own opinion," says Ruth Livingstone of the British Medical Acupuncture Society, "acupuncture can help relieve some of the problems which exacerbate epilepsy - stress, poor sleep, etc."
In the U.S., most of the research on acupuncture has been done on dogs. In one study of 5 dogs, all had decreased numbers of seizures after being treated with acupuncture. Three continued to have fewer seizures with lower levels of anticonvulsants; the other two dogs also had a reduction in seizures.3
Barbara Drake, a New York artist, was diagnosed with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy at age 21. Several years later, she started acupuncture treatments for several years, spaced at weekly, then monthly, intervals. During that time she was able to lower her medications. "It hasn't entirely controlled my seizures, but I've had fewer seizures and I've gained a greater awareness of my body," she says. "I always felt immensely relaxed after each treatment, with a renewed feeling of well-being. My acupuncturist had, I thought, a far better understanding of my body than my neurologist. Her powers of observations were acute, too. One day when I went for a treatment, I told her I'd had a seizure the day before. 'I thought so,' she said. 'The spleen spot on your leg is swollen.'"
One man who had experienced several grand mal seizures while asleep was diagnosed with Partial Temporal Lobe Epilepsy and his physician prescribed Dilantin. "But," he says, "I was afraid of the side effects of medication. I have instead decided to try acupuncture and Chinese herbal mixtures. I feel there is some control. I've had one seizure since I began treatment. At this point," he says, "the treatment I have chosen seems much preferable to the mind-numbing and toxic effect of the usual prescription drugs.
Children - even babies - can benefit from acupuncture treatments. Says Gary Fleischman, author of Acupuncture: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know (Barrytown, Ltd.), "Acupuncture knows no age limit."
A recent study indicates hat acupuncture carries low, but possible, risks. A group of researchers examined over thirty years of medical literature, looking for cases where patients had been seriously harmed by acupuncture. They found more than 110 serious injuries and four fatalities. The most frequent problem: the piercing of a patient's lung or surrounding tissue. These researchers say that all complications were due to the practitioner's lack of skill. 4 Since many US states now require practitioners to pass an exam before they can practice, such injuries should become even more rare.
According to a 1998 consensus statement from the National Institutes of Health, acupuncture is clearly useful for a number of conditions, including migraine headaches, stroke rehabilitation, addiction and lower back pain. Epilepsy may soon be added to this official list.
Researchers advise the best ways to protect yourself:
1) Ask for credentials. Seek a licensed practitioner who has trained at an accredited school; the typical licensed acupuncturist has 2,000 to 3,000 hours of training. Be advised that in 30 states, physicians can practice acupuncture without any training. States that do require doctors to study before practicing demand only 200 or 300 hours of work;
2) Ask how much experience the practitioner has with acupuncture in general and treating epilepsy in particular;
3) Make sure disposable needles are used, to avoid infectious diseases from dirty needles. (In 1996, the Food and Drug Administration sanctioned the use of acupuncture when it reclassified acupuncture needles, putting them in the same group of medically accepted devices as scalpels and syringes.)
1. Lai, CW and Y Lai, "History of Epilepsy in Chinese Traditional Medicine." Epilepsia, May/June 1991, pp. 289-302.
2. Fisher, M.V., "Acupuncture Therapy in the Outpatient Department of the Heidelberg University Clinic." Anaesthetist. 31(1):25-32, 1982.
3. Klide, A.M. et al. "Acupuncture Therapy for the Treatment of Intractable Idiopathic Epilepsy in Five Dogs." Acupuncture Electrotherapy Research, 12 (1), 1987, pp. 71-4.
4. "Can the Needles Injure You?" Health, April 2000, p. 24
© Patricia Murphy
Patricia Murphy a medical writer with epilepsy, publishes the Epilepsy Wellness Newsletter, which focuses on information about alternative treatments for epilepsy.