June is National Stroke Awareness Month, which seems like the perfect time to share my experience treating stroke patients a few years ago when I volunteered with the Acupuncture Relief Project, a small non-profit organization that worked to provide healthcare to rural areas of Nepal.
One of the biggest health risks we watched out for in our patients at the clinic were precursors to stroke. The main health concerns were high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and high cholesterol, all of which were on the rise throughout Nepal. This stemmed from a diet high in salt and starch and easier access to processed foods high in sugars and sodium. Combining improper diet with a sedentary lifestyle poses serious health risks. Aside from manual labor working the fields or walking up and down the steep hills from village to village or to temple for puja (prayer), any sort of exercise was practically unheard of and we saw a lot of folks come through the clinic who benefited from the guidance we had to offer them. Prevention is a key component to healthy living.
When a stroke occurs, there are key signs that confirm what is going on and, if identified and treated quickly, can dramatically improve the outcome. This includes numbness in the arm, face, or leg (usually on one side of the body), severe headache, slurred speech and confusion or difficulty using the right words, loss of balance, dizziness or vertigo, and visionary trouble. When someone is experiencing a stroke, seeking medical attention as soon as possible and acting F.A.S.T. (Face droop? Arm weakness? Slurred speech? Time to call 911) is vital in order to prevent permanent damage to the brain.
In rural Nepal, it can be difficult to access immediate medical attention, so many people are dealing with long-term post-stroke symptoms. It was a common patient profile in the little clinic in Bajra Barahi where I volunteered. So in my time there, I worked closely with many post-stroke patients and saw first hand what consistent acupuncture can do for them.
One was a man I’ll call Rajesh, who would travel to the clinic by foot from a village about three hours walk away. He and his wife would come slowly down the dirt road towards the clinic each morning (see photos below). I saw them from the window while finishing up my spicy split pea porridge (dhaal bhat) and tea. It was an admirable sight, as his stroke left the right side of his body about 80% immobile. His pride allowed for the use of a walking stick but never any help from his wife who we’ll call Sita. Every day we would do combined therapies of routine range of motion exercises, Chinese massage called Tui Na, and scalp acupuncture with electro-stimulation. By the end of my couple of months working in the clinic, we saw his mobility and motor function improve by a margin of 30%, a huge success considering his prior state. His wife also had started getting treatment for her high blood pressure and stress.
In China, doctors of Traditional Chinese Medicine have done extensive research on treating stroke. Acupuncture has proven to be a highly effective therapy during recovery. The brain is stimulated by the needles to increase communication with the nervous system, rebuilding deadened nerve pathways and helping to smooth the circulation of blood throughout the body. In Rajesh’s case, his stroke had occurred fourteen months prior but he didn’t seek treatment until 9 months later. However, he was persistent with his treatment and even in his chronic state, was able to see how acupuncture could help him regain the functions his body had lost from his stroke.
- Kyndl Mueller, L.Ac.