Can acupuncture help relieve pain from shingles?

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Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine that involves inserting thin needles into specific points on the body. Some evidence suggests that this alternative medicine may help relieve pain and may have some benefits in relieving painful complications of shingles.

Shingles is a viral infection resulting from the reactivation of varicella zoster virus (VZV), which is the same virus that causes chickenpox. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 1 of 3 people in the United States will develop shingles in their lifetime.

Shingles pain and other symptoms usually develop in stages over the course of the illness, which typically lasts 3 to 5 weeks. A common complication of shingles is postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), which is severe, continuous nerve pain that can last for months or years. The evidence suggests that 10–18% of people with shingles will get PHN, and the risk of PHN increases with age.

Although there is currently no known cure for shingles, many treatment options are available. Although acupuncture may remain controversial among some Western doctors and scientists, studies suggest that it can help relieve pain, such as the discomfort caused by shingles.

In this article, we will discuss what acupuncture is and the effectiveness of acupuncture and other treatment options for shingles.

Acupuncture is a Traditional Chinese Medicine technique in which practitioners use thin metal needles to stimulate the channels, or meridians, on a person’s body. Promoters to suggest that life energy or “qi” flows through these meridians and can affect spiritual, emotional, mental and physical health.

Those who practice acupuncture state that pain and other symptoms of illness occur when the network of qi channels stagnates. Therefore, acupuncturists gently use the needles to improve a person’s flow and balance of qi to help relieve symptoms.

Some proof suggests it may help relieve nerve pain, such as painful shingles rashes. While scientists still don’t fully understand how acupuncture can work, some to research indicates that it may aid in the release of natural pain-relieving chemicals, help regulate blood pressure and flow, and reduce inflammation.

Organizations that promote the benefits of acupuncture to suggest that it can help relieve pain. the British Council of Acupuncture states that although more research is needed, acupuncture may help relieve the painful symptoms of shingles.

A Systematic review and meta-analysis 2019 reports that acupuncture can reduce pain intensity, relieve anxiety, and improve quality of life for people with PHN. This is consistent with a Systematic review and meta-analysis 2018, who adds that although there is not enough evidence to suggest that acupuncture is superior to other treatments, it is generally safe and can be effective in relieving pain.

Current evidence suggests that other factors, such as a person’s expectations or beliefs unrelated to acupuncture, may play a role in the pain-relieving effects of acupuncture. As researchers are only beginning to understand the potential benefits of the technique, this underscores the need for further research.

According to National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), experts generally consider acupuncture to be safe when performed by an experienced, licensed, and well-trained practitioner using sterile needles. However, the NCCIH also adds that acupuncture can cause serious adverse effects, including central nervous system damage.

A 2017 case report notes an example of an individual developing shingles after receiving acupuncture in the ear for treatment of back pain. However, the paper could not attribute the shingles case to acupuncture. Although it is possible that auricular acupuncture triggered the shingles outbreak, it is likely an unrelated or extremely rare event.

Click here to learn more about recurring shingles.

Some other treatment options for shingles may include:

Antiviral drugs

A doctor may prescribe antiviral medications to treat shingles, such as:

Antivirals can shorten the duration and severity of shingles. Antiviral drugs are most effective when a person starts them in 72 hours after the shingles rash appears.

Shingles vaccination

the CDC recommends that healthy adults aged 50 and over receive the shingles vaccine, known as Shingrix. A pharmacist or doctor gives a person two doses of the vaccine 2 to 6 months apart.

Although not a treatment, Shingrix provides powerful protection against shingles and PHN.

Click here to learn more about the shingles vaccine.

pain medication

A person can take over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers to help relieve pain from shingles. For example, people may consider using capsaicin creams to help relieve pain. Capsaicin is an active component of chili peppers and can provide relief by affecting nerves associated with pain.

A doctor can also prescribe certain medications to help relieve a person’s pain caused by shingles. Examples include:

Wet compresses, soaks and calamine lotion

A person can apply a clean, damp, cool washcloth to their rash several times a day to 5 to 10 minutes every time. Alternatively, people can also try bathing in cold water with added baking soda, uncooked oatmeal, or colloidal oatmeal.

Individuals may also consider using calamine lotion as it can have a soothing and cooling effect on the skin. A person can gently apply the lotion after the shingles blisters have crusted over.

Stress management

Managing stress in a healthy way can help someone with shingles pain. Suggestions include:

  • sleep a lot
  • stay physically active
  • reducing or avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and other recreational drugs
  • practicing relaxation techniques
  • try yoga or tai chi
  • talk to friends and relatives
  • doing activities that help forget a person’s pain, such as reading books, listening to music, pursuing hobbies, or learning something new

Essential oils

Although more research is needed, some people may consider essential oils, such as peppermint, thyme, and lemon, for relieving the pain and itching associated with shingles.

However, some people may have reactions to these oils, such as skin irritation. A person should always speak with their doctor before applying essential oils to their shingles rash. Additionally, people should dilute essential oils in a carrier oil before applying them to the skin.

Click here to learn more about essential oils and shingles.

A person with symptoms of shingles should contact their doctor as soon as possible to discuss treatment options. If they experience ongoing pain symptoms, such as PHN, they can ask their doctor about pain relief options, such as acupuncture.

If acupuncture does not relieve shingles pain or makes it worse, a person is advised to stop acupuncture treatment and contact their doctor for other options.

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine technique that practitioners can use to treat chronic pain. As such, people may consider it an option for relieving the painful symptoms of shingles. Although it may provide some relief, more research is needed to determine its effectiveness.

Shingles pain can be severe and affect a person’s overall well-being. In addition to acupuncture, other treatment options for shingles pain may include antivirals, pain relievers, cold compresses, and the shingles vaccine.

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