Acupuncture is widely used in China for treatment of acute stroke. A few controlled studies have been published over the last 10 years, but the best-designed and largest studies failed to find benefit.
For example, a single-blind, placebo-controlled trial of 104 people who had just experienced a stroke failed to find any benefit with 10 weeks of twice-weekly acupuncture. Similarly, a single-blind, controlled study of 150 people recovering from stroke compared acupuncture (including electro-acupuncture), high-intensity muscle stimulation, and sham treatment. All participants received 20 treatments over a 10-week period. Neither acupuncture nor muscle stimulation produced any benefits. A 10-week study of 106 people, which provided a total of 35 traditional acupuncture sessions, also failed to find benefit. Also, 92 patients who received either 12 acupuncture treatments or a comparable sham (fake) treatment demonstrated the same level of improvement up to one year later.
Finally, a 2011 systematic review, which included 10 randomized trials and 711 patients who had a stroke, failed to find evidence that acupuncture (compared to sham treatment) helped with recovery.
A few studies did find benefit, but they were very small, and some did not use a placebo group. One trial of 62 patients found that a 3-week program of transcutaneous electrical stimulation of acupuncture points (beginning about 9 days after stroke) improved muscle tone and strength in the affected leg.
A large review including 56 mostly poor quality trials reported that acupuncture may benefit post-stroke rehabilitation (based on an analysis of 38 trials), and another review of 9 trials found limited evidence in support of moxibustion for stroke rehabilitation. Another systematic review focusing on scalp acupuncture did find positive results. The review included 7 randomized trials that compared scalp acupuncture to conventional treatment in 230 stroke patients. Those who were in the acupuncture group had fewer neurological problems compared to the patients who had standard care.
These kinds of trials, however, cannot be blinded (ie, patients know whether or not they have received acupuncture). A review published in 2011 found that scalp acupuncture improved neurologic deficits in 7 randomized trials of 458 stroke patients when compared to usual care. Patients were assessed on consciousness, gaze, facial weakness, language, walking ability, and motor function.
A randomized trial of 120 post-stroke patients with hemiplegia and stage I shoulder-hand syndrome compared electric acupuncture and massage to rehabilitation therapy for 6 weeks. Patients having electronic acupuncture and massage had significant improvement in pain with passive movement, and functional ability. Patients with electric acupuncture were also less likely to progress to the next stages of shoulder-hand syndrome at 3 months