Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Acupuncture and Stroke

Why I Pay To Have Over 50 Needles Shoved in Me Every Week

It works.

I go to the gym, go to the pool, and go to acupuncture, all things I have to pay for, and all things that involve varying degrees of discomfort, because they are all working, demonstrably, to hasten my recovery from brain damage.

To get why they are having a positive effect, I think it helps to understand what's going on with me. When I had the strokes, bits of my brain died. The bits that died mostly controlled motor function: the movement of muscles. In some cases, like the left side of  my face, although sensation remained, I lost all the brain matter that was sent signals to move the muscles. In other cases I lost sensation and control, like in part of my right butt; it felt like I was sitting on something in my back pocket, but in fact I was just sitting on my ass, and couldn't feel it (I can now, no need to kick me). In most cases, I lost some of the brain matter controlling some of the muscle, with the result of making almost every part of my right side below the neck weaker and less coordinated. The secondary problem, in some cases, is that of atrophy: it's been a long time since some muscles saw use. My right hand is visibly thinner than my left, and there are muscles in my face that can only be felt on the right side.

At this point, some seventeen months after the strokes, to recover, I have to get other parts of my brain to do the jobs that the dead bits used to do. This is a process that is similar to a baby learning to use its body, a process that takes many years, and is eventually optimized in adolescence, which is why teenagers can be great klutzes, but suddenly graceful by their late teens. I'm hoping it doesn't take me as long as a decade, but it might.

Using the brain's plasticity to get live bits to do the work of dead can only happen when there is stimulus in the brain in the live bits. That's why function now improves slowly, and improvement only happens in muscles whose controlling brain parts were adjacent to living brain tissue. Their signals were reaching still-living brain matter, but it has to learn not to ignore the signals as irrelevant, and take responsibility for new muscle.

Gym work both requires muscles to work, and the brain to control them, more often than not in the stabilisation; that's why I do mostly dumbbell work. In the pool, I'm requiring muscular control and coordination, and also parenthetically working on my endurance which is pretty low. The benefits are clearly noticeable: despite being tired after swimming, I walk better. So, what does acupuncture do?

Here's what an acupuncture session is like, if you've never had one. You take off varying amounts of clothing, sometimes  lie face up, sometimes face down, and the acupuncturist puts a bunch of needles in you. Then you rest for a while, often falling asleep. Finally the acupuncturist removes all the needles and you're done. Yes, some of the needles hurt some of the time, but usually for no more than a second or two. Also, I've had a lumbar puncture (a.k.a. spinal tap), and these are nothing in comparison.

Often, you're booked in for an hour's session, and the acupuncturist will come and wake you up so they can get the needles out and get you dressed before their next client. I've been going to a great place called Olo Acupuncture in New York, that practices community acupuncture: the treatment happens in a communal space with a bunch of table and chairs to lie in. Apart from the price, the best thing for me is that they let you rest (or snooze) for as long as the treatment takes. On a recent trip, when one of the needles was damn sore, I slept for over two hours, and it's not like I'm running a sleep deficit.

There's a lot about traditional Chinese medicine that is alien to my skeptical self, and as a result I find it useful to think of much of the approach as having a very good, but rather peculiar, working metaphor. Frankly, I don't care if a practitioner is balancing my chi, clearing wind from my trembling limb, or just poking me with needles: it works. I feel better afterwards, more even, more symmetrical.

What about the placebo effect? Perhaps it's just me thinking that acupuncture is going to work, and so it does. For many of the benefits I perceive that could be the case, and the mind is certainly significant in changing the brain, but not all. The left side of my face has gradually been moving thanks to acupuncture. I have no doubt about it. Before I had needles in my face and left orbit, my left side did not visibly move. It does now.

What I think is going on is that the needles are stimulating the atrophied muscles, or nerves into those muscles, and my brain is recognising that stimulation as requiring response. Perhaps it's as simple as the needle being fine enough to be an irritant without causing damage. Perhaps it's something else: acupuncture anesthesia seems to work on a different principle. No matter, I can't stimulate those muscles any other way; believe me, I've tried.

In the end, what matters to me, is that acupuncture is helping me to recover, and to recover faster from the brain damage caused by stroke. It works.