Parkinson’s Disease and Chinese Medicine: How Acupuncture and Herbal Therapies Can Help
Parkinson’s Disease is the second-most common neurodegenerative disease in the U.S. – behind only Alzheimer’s in prevalence. Around 1 million Americans are living with the disease, and for most of those people, Parkinson’s will eventually develop into life-altering complications.
Research into the condition is continuing at an aggressive pace, but Parkinson’s remains incurable – so treatment is focused on managing symptoms. Both western and Chinese medicine offer therapeutic options in the fight against Parkinson’s, and together, these Houston treatments can help patients maintain quality of life for longer.
Here, we’ll focus on those treatment options and how Chinese medicine can be implemented for Parkinson’s patients looking for additional relief.
The Symptoms and Progression of Parkinson’s Disease
As Parkinson’s Disease is a neurodegenerative disease, it is characterized by chronic symptoms that worsen with time. For some patients, this progression is slow – potentially taking decades before reaching advanced stages. For others, progression is aggressive and moves quickly.
The causes and risk factors behind Parkinson’s are many, though researchers believe it’s due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Ultimately, the primary driver of Parkinson’s is damage and degeneration of nerve cells in the substantia nigra – the part of the brain that controls movement. With time, these cells either die out or lose the ability to produce dopamine – a vital neurotransmitter that the brain uses for intercellular communication. Without adequate levels of dopamine in the substantia nigra, critical motor neurons lose their ability to function and sustain themselves.
There is also more than one type of Parkinson’s, including early-onset Parkinson’s Disease that affects people under 50 years old. Early-onset Parkinson’s, for example, is believed to involve more genetic risk factors and has a different prognosis than the idiopathic form of the disease.
Regardless of the type of Parkinson’s, there is a classical array of symptoms that point to the disease. They include:
- Tremors, specifically resting tremors (involuntary movements that occur while remaining at rest)
- Bradykinesia (slower movements and restricted range of movements)
- Changes in posture and postural stability
- Changes in facial expression (facial masking)
- Loss of balance and falling
- Muscle and limb rigidity
- Loss of smell
- Dizziness or fainting
As you can see, some of these symptoms are nonspecific, so it may not be obvious that Parkinson’s is what’s causing them. With time, these symptoms will worsen and affect more of the body – a sign that a progressive condition may be present.
There are no laboratory tests for Parkinson’s, though researchers are working on identifying biomarkers that can be picked up during a test. As such, diagnosis follows from a thorough medical history and neurological examination.
How Western Medicine Treats Parkinson’s Disease
Currently, there is no cure for Parkinson’s, but there are treatments that can delay symptom progression. Western medicine is on the hunt for better diagnostic methods and therapies that will improve patient outcomes, but present treatment options largely focus on medication and lifestyle changes.
There are several classes of medication used to treat Parkinson’s patients, but among them, levodopa is the frontline option for most cases. Levodopa is used by nerve cells to produce more dopamine, so it can support higher levels of the neurotransmitter. Levodopa is usually prescribed with a second medication – carbidopa – which offsets some of the side effects of levodopa, including nausea, vomiting, restlessness and issues with blood pressure.
Levodopa can delay motor symptoms for years, but patients will need to work with their doctor to adjust the dosage as needed. With time, higher doses are typically needed, and symptoms will become harder to control.
Other medications may be used to inhibit enzymes that break down dopamine (MAO-B and COMT inhibitors), or medications that reduce tremors and rigidity (anticholinergic drugs and amantadine).
In patients where medication is insufficient, a deep brain stimulation implant may be recommended. Deep brain implants stimulate the brain’s motor neurons to function and can offset some motor-related symptoms. Brain surgery, of course, comes with its own risks.
How Chinese Medicine Helps Patients with Parkinson’s Disease
Chinese medicine is a powerful complement to western medicine, as it approaches patients with a whole-body health philosophy, instead of breaking the body down into compartmentalized organ systems. There are merits to both approaches, so many patients attain greater relief by integrating both concepts into their treatment regimen.
In Chinese medicine, disease mechanisms are often described as an expression of energy. According to practitioners, the body’s essential life energies – yin and yang – must be kept in balance to promote optimal organ function. When disease pathologies do emerge, practitioners frequently describe them using terms like “heat,” “dampness” or “wind.” These terms are meant to explain how the disease condition emerges and how it’s transmitted through the body.
Practitioners typically associate Parkinson’s Disease with a yin deficiency and internal wind. The yin deficiency often results from weakened kidney and liver function – a process that may become more pronounced with age. As yin energy sources from the liver and kidney drops, the counterbalancing yang energy rises in intensity and causes dysfunction, resulting in wind. In Chinese medicine, it’s the resulting wind that causes most of the symptoms associated with Parkinson’s.
Replenishing the body’s yin energy and depleting wind are the goals of a Chinese medicine approach. This is usually done with a combination of acupuncture and herbal therapies. Here’s the part each plays in helping patients with the disease:
- Acupuncture – Acupuncture is known to stimulate the nervous system in beneficial ways, including stimulating the body into healing itself through biochemical processes.For Parkinson’s patients, acupuncture is recommended to help remove wind from the body, helping with a variety of disease symptoms. Acupuncture points used in this approach target the gallbladder channel, which runs from head to foot. One example is Gallbladder 20, which sits at the base of the skull. Stimulating this point can reduce wind and its associated symptoms.Acupuncture can also bring yin and yang back into balance, specifically by stimulating liver function. In Chinese medicine, organs are paired together from a functional standpoint – the kidney and liver are examples of one such pairing. Due to this pairing, if one of the two organs is kicked out of balance, it will affect the paired organ’s function.One way for acupuncturists to attack Parkinson’s, then, is to stimulate the liver and bring the kidney yin back up. The Liver 3 acupuncture point, located on the dorsal side of the foot, is a standard target for Parkinson’s patients.
- Herbal formulations – Herbal therapies are a primary modality in Chinese medicine and are used in a huge variety of conditions. For Parkinson’s Disease, the most common herbal formula is Chaihu Jia Longgu Muli Tang. This herbal mixture consists of 12 ingredients, including bupleurum roots, skullcap, rhubarb, cinnamon, ginseng, oyster shells, poria-cocos mushrooms and a few others. Together, these beneficial botanicals (and desiccated seashells) can tonify the liver and help bring the body’s energies back into proper balance.
Western and Chinese Medicine Offer Hope to Those with Parkinson’s Disease
There isn’t a cure for Parkinson’s Disease yet, but treatments are improving all the time. And for many patients, those improving treatments include a mixture of western and Chinese therapies.
If you or a loved one aren’t attaining sufficient relief from current Parkinson’s treatments, Chinese medicine may offer additional solutions.
It’s important, though, to work with a licensed Houston acupuncturist and practitioner. Licensed Chinese medicine practitioners are trained to provide optimal treatment, such as targeting the right acupuncture points, using the right acupuncture equipment, and prescribing the most effective herbal therapies. Together, this multi-pronged approach supports better patient outcomes in people suffering from Parkinson’s Disease.