I recently read a super interesting article that I’ve wanted to share with you, and I figure today’s a good day to geek out. So put your nerd pants on because we’re talking science!
It turns out that a large amount of the damage from having a spinal cord injury actually happens AFTER the injury. What this means is…if your neighbor Bob falls off his roof and crushes his spinal cord right this instant, that just caused nerve damage. But in the next few weeks and months, the healing process will actually cause FURTHER nerve damage. Who knew?!
The spinal cord is made up of nerves and supporting cells. When you injure you spinal cord, there is an initial amount of damage done, which then causes inflammation. Inflammation damages and destroys the nerves’ supporting cells during the healing process. Nerves cannot survive without supporting cells. Therefore, during the period where you are healing after a spinal cord injury, the amount of nerve damage increases.
There doesn’t seem to be a large body of scientific research that supports the efficacy of traditional Chinese medicine. For example, acupuncture is often considered a luxury akin to massages, or as an alternative treatment option for when Western medicine treatments fail. Chinese medicine has practiced electro-acupuncture (applying needles in specific positions of the body and then running a small electrical current through those needles) for over 80 years and has been used for spinal cord injury patients.
Does electro-acupuncture have any real measurable impact in spinal cord injury? Or is it just some superstition or theory that fits with Chinese cultural or spiritual beliefs?
There has been a recent push towards finding scientific merit for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM); there is even an entire scientific journal dedicated to this goal: Chinese Medicine Journal. Of course some believe that TCM has no place in respectable scientific publications.
Electro-acupuncture is often used at points along the spine (or, to be more specific, along the river of yang, aka. The “governor vessel,” as described in TCM). I admit, the idea of sending energy to your river of yang sounds like hokus pokus and sticking needles into my spine sounds like it could only cause bad things. But today is a good day to be nerd, so embrace your inner scientist and look at the data with an open mind.
In this article, it is shown that electro-acupuncture shortly following spinal cord injury:
- suppresses inflammation
- inhibits glial scar (scar tissue) formation, and
- promotes the growth of neural stem cells.
We already know inflammation causes additional nerve damage. The glial scar causes loss of nerve function. Neural stem cells can form new nerve cells are present in small numbers in the adult spinal cord. The fact that electro-acupuncture promotes growth of neural stem cells could be HUGE. They also showed that electro-acupuncture increased the amount of function regained following the injury.
This article shows that electro-acupuncture treatment immediately following spinal cord injury causes as much improvement in function as transplanting stem cells to the site of injury! This non-invasive, relatively low-risk treatment works just as well as surgically placing stem cells (which your body may reject) to recently damaged tissue!! If this is true, I say Chinese Medicine: 1, Western Medicine: 0.
Normal acupuncture was used in a 2003 clinical trial for immediate treatment of spinal cord injuries. You can see the positive results here.
But this is all talking about electro-acupuncture treatment in the weeks where your body is still healing from the injury. What if your injury is old? Does it have any affect?
According to Chanda Hinton Leichtle, regular acupuncture treatments ended her chronic pain, along with other secondary conditions that resulted from her spinal cord injury. Western medicine could only prescribe her pain medications that nearly killed her. Unfortunately, insurance companies do not pay for these alternative treatments. So Chanda started a non-profit, the Chandra Plan Foundation, that has successfully passed legislation to allow Medicaid to cover certain alternative therapies (such as acupuncture, yoga, massage, etc) in a pilot program. It seems to be working judging by the testimonials page!
Interesting note: I just found the tiniest digital footprint about a scientist in France, Albert Bohbot, that practices laserpuncture where infra-red light beams are used on acupuncture points (no needles!). I didn’t find any data only an account saying the patients in the study responded well to laserpuncture.
Now, I’m not saying that acupuncture is a magic cure. However, it is an exciting area where I would love to see more research done. It may stimulate a significant improvement in treatment and patient outcomes, and if we can study HOW it causes that improvement, maybe we can use that knowledge to find that magic cure! Alohomora