6 Complementary and Alternative Therapies for Stroke

For some patients, alternative stroke treatments are an important aspect of recovery and pain management. Here are six complementary and alternative therapies that have a scientific basis for relief after a stroke. Doctors often prescribe standard medical care, like medication and therapy, after a person has a stroke. But research shows that complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies, like acupuncture, yoga, and massage therapy, can also benefit people who have had a stroke. Here are six evidence-backed ways to treat a stroke using complementary and alternative medicines:

1. Acupuncture Reduces Pain and Depression

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese complementary medicine that involves penetrating the skin with fine needles. In addition to being safe and inexpensive, acupuncture is a promising alternative approach to stroke recovery. Acupuncture has been used as a form of stroke rehabilitation in China for thousands of years, though it’s becoming increasingly practiced in Western countries, according to a study published in the journal Acupuncture in Medicine. A review published in October 2017 in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences looked at the effectiveness of acupuncture as a treatment for ischemic stroke and found that the treatment promotes the growth and development of tissue in the central nervous system, regulates cerebral blood flow in the ischemic area, and improves long-term memory after a stroke. Additionally, a study published in March 2017 in the journal Medicines found that accupuncture may have beneficial psychological effects on patients after they had a stroke, lowering the risk for depression.

2. Yoga Can Help Increase Range of Motion

Problems with balance and coordination are common after a stroke, and practicing yoga may help you improve those impairments. A study published in 2014 in American Journal of Recreation Therapy examined the effects of yoga on 26 individuals with chronic stroke. After an eight-week yoga intervention, participants reported improved emotional regulation, increased stability and range of motion, and improvements in activity and participation. According to Dr. Robinson, yoga can help patients achieve more independence with activities of daily living and lessen their fear of falling. “Yoga therapy may assist patients in improving their balance as well as their quality of life,” Robinson says. “Working intentionally with stretch, strengthening, body awareness, and balance exercises are some of the ways in which yoga therapy can produce benefits for stroke patients.” 

3. Tai Chi Helps Improve Balance

Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese tradition that involves a series of slow movements and stretches coupled with deep breathing. The body and mind work together to perform coordinated movements by focusing on each posture as it flows to the next, according to the Mayo Clinic. Research shows that the practice can help stroke patients improve balance, too. A review published in May 2018 in the journal Clinical Rehabilitation looked at 10 studies involving over 700 participants who suffered from neurological disorders and found that tai chi was effective in reducing fall incidences in Parkinson’s disease and stroke.

4. Massage Therapy Can Improve Fine Motor Skills

Massage therapy is the manipulation of body tissues in order to enhance a person’s health and well-being. A study published in 2012 in the Journal of Chinese Integrative Medicine found that Thai massage and herbal treatments can improve daily function, mood, sleep patterns, and pain in individuals who have suffered a stroke. Massages can help people who have had a stroke by relieving pain, and improving sleep and mood. There’s also research to support that certain types of massage can lead to improvements in fine motor skills. In a case report published in April 2012 in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, a woman suffering from postpartum stroke showed improvements in her speech and fine motor skills after 14 sessions of urut Melayu, the traditional Malay massage.

5. Aromatherapy Relieves Stress

Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils and plant extracts in massages or baths for relaxation. This natural stress-relieving remedy has even been shown to help with depression, migraines, pain, anxiety, and restless leg syndrome. For stroke patients, aromatherapy may be an alternative therapy option. A small study published in August 2017 in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science divided 14 stroke patients into two groups: one was administered a back massage and foot bath using an essential oil five times in one week, and the other group received the same therapy without the oils.

6. Herbal Supplements May Improve Neurological Function

Herbal supplements, also called botanicals, have been used for thousands of years for medicinal purposes. After evaluating 28 trials that included over 2,000 patients, in a meta-analysis published in December 2017 in the journal Medicine, researchers found that some patented Chinese herbal supplements — Shuxuetong, Mailuoning, Xuesaitong, and Buchang Naoxintong — may improve neurological function and the ability to participate in activities of daily living in stroke patients.