The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one million Americans develop shingles each year. The disease typically appears as a painful, one-sided blistering rash that affects the skin supplied by a single spinal or cranial nerve. Pain due to shingles can be severe, even debilitating. For up to 70 percent of patients, pain persists long after the rash resolves, according to the CDC. Patients who consider acupuncture treatments for shingles should discuss this decision with their physicians prior to beginning therapy.
HistoryThe National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a division of the National Institutes of Health, reports that the use of acupuncture as a treatment for pain from shingles and other health problems dates back more than two thousand years to ancient China. NCCAM credits New York Times reporter James Reston with introducing acupuncture to mainstream Americans in 1971, after he reported how doctors in China used the technique to relieve post-surgical pain. NCCAM estimates than about one percent of Americans currently use acupuncture for conditions including shingles.Therapeutic Rationale
According to NCCAM, practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine believe that all medical problems, including shingles, result from imbalance between yin, which is the cold, slow or passive principle, and yang, which represents the hot, excited or active principle. Acupuncture, according to practitioners, corrects the imbalance by restoring the flow of energy, or qi, within the body. The Mayo Clinic website notes that conventional medicine practitioners don’t known how acupuncture works or, in fact, whether it works at all, since clinical trials for other conditions such as fibromyalgia have shown mixed results.
ConsiderationsNCCAM does not recommend acupuncture as an alternative to conventional medical treatment for any condition. Patients considering acupuncture as an adjunct to conventional medical treatment for shingles should check with their physicians before starting treatment. Acupuncture may be contraindicated in people with certain medical problems, especially those who require treatment with blood thinners, those who have pacemakers and women who are pregnant. Insurance may not cover acupuncture, so NCCAM recommends that patients talk to practitioners about the costs of therapy, including the cost per session and the number of sessions that are likely to be required.
TechniqueAcupuncture entails penetrating the skin with hair-thin, solid, metal needles at different points along the body. Some practitioners apply the needles to the whole body, while others apply them exclusively to the feet. The places where the needles are inserted vary depending on the practitioner’s preference and the
location of the patient’s shingles rash or pain. Some practitioners apply heat or small electrical currents to the needles–called moxibustion–is used. NCCAM warns that practitioners should clean the treatment sites with alcohol or a similar disinfectant prior to needle insertion, in order to reduce the risk of infection.
SafetyAccording to NCCAM, few complications have been reported from the use of acupuncture for shingles and other conditions. Side effects generally include soreness, bruising or small amounts of bleeding at the insertion site. In rare case, injury to internal organs such as the lungs have been reported when needles were inserted too deeply. To reduce the risk of infections, the Food and Drug Administration allows only sterile, nontoxic needles for one-time use by qualified practitioners. Acupuncture should not be performed on skin sites with an active or incompletely healed shingles rash because of the potential for tissue damage and scarring.
EffectivenessIn a 2006 article published in “Alternative Medicine Reviews,” naturopathic doctor Mario Roxas explains that studies on the effectiveness of acupuncture for shingles and other health conditions have been hampered by small sample size, differences in technique between practitioners and lack of an effective placebo for acupuncture. The few studies that are available, says Roxas, suggest that acupuncture has a favorable effect on pain due to shingles. However, there is no evidence to suggest that acupuncture can replace conventional medical care in the treatment of shingles or any other condition.