Due to its proximity to the central nervous system, this small section of the head can be seen as a microcosm of the whole body. While conventional body acupuncture uses channel points located on the top of the head, cranial acupuncture follows a different approach outside the meridian relationship. In this case, the points are selected according to their connections with specific brain functions and their sensitivity to touch.
In scalp acupuncture, the cranium is divided into specific zones corresponding to different sensory and motor areas of the cerebral cortex. The section close to the forehead is used for treating upper body dysfunctions, while the area behind the ears is stimulated for problems in the lower limbs. Functional zones, such as sensory, memory and motor, are located at the back and sides of the head.
Scalp acupuncture acts by increasing the blood flow and oxygen supply to the cranial nerve of the brain. It is commonly used for the treatment of neurological problems including stroke, as well as a very interesting medical condition called phantom limb pain.
Cerebral stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is temporally blocked. While nearly one in every 15 people will suffer some form of stroke in their lifetime, the intensity of the attacks varies greatly. It can range from a barely noticeable temporary weakness or tingling in the joints, to partial paralysis, coma and death.
Patients who survive major stroke are often left with paralysis to one side of their body. They have difficulties speaking and walking, and often suffer from mental confusion and anguish as a result of their sudden inability to communicate with their family members and friends.
Medical research has confirmed that cranial acupuncture can bring significant improvement in cognitive function by stimulating nerve cells damaged during the stroke. Since each side of the brain controls the opposite side of the body, victims who have suffered a stroke on the right side of their brain will have local paralysis on the left side of their face, and vice versa. Acupuncture follows the same principle, for example, using needles on the right side of the scalp to treat paralysis of the left leg.
Following the specific treatment zones outlined in the map of the scalp, the practitioner first chooses the section to be stimulated, then gently palpates the surface of the skin for evidence of sensitivity to touch. Once the points have been selected, the acupuncture needles are inserted, not in the cranium but at an oblique angle under the connective tissue of the scalp, for 30 to 45 minutes. During that time, they are stimulated every 10 minutes to increase the blood flow and oxygen to the defective area. It is a very gentle and relaxing technique that patients quickly learn to enjoy. The treatments are scheduled two to three times a week, according to the severity of the impairment.
While stroke rehabilitation using acupuncture, or other conventional methods, is generally a slow process, there is a famous story of Ming Qing. A graduate of the Shanghai University of Chinese Medicine, he obtained miraculous results at a conference in Beijing in 1987 when he performed acupuncture on a debilitated stroke patient who instantly began to walk independently.
Phantom Limb Pain
Cranial acupuncture has also been used successfully in treating another medical condition, which I personally find quite fascinating. Phantom limb pain is a strange phenomenon, which occurs in over 70% of patients who have had a limb amputated. It describes the abnormal sensation that the surgically removed arm or the leg is still attached to the body. Patients will complain of severe burning, or shooting pain originating from their missing limb, which is literally driving them crazy.
There are conflicting theories regarding the cause of this disorder. Some specialists believe it is caused by ongoing stimulation of the amputated stump by the severed nerves that are still active. Other studies suggest the phantom limb pain could originate from the area of the brain that controlled the missing limb before it was amputated.
Clinical reports have shown that scalp acupuncture could be an effective form of pain relief for this disorder. In February 2006, a small American study was conducted in Washington, DC with seven patients. After only one treatment, 86% of them reported some degree of pain relief, and 43% showed a significant level of improvement. Of course, it was only a small sample, but it gave them hope that their condition could finally be improved, and this definitely makes it worth investigating.
Olivier Lejus MHSc, BHSc is a registered acupuncturist practising in Sydney.
Olivier Lejus BHSc.MHSc. is a registered acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist practising in Sydney. A former casual university lecturer and tutor in Oriental medicine with over 15 years experience in clinical practice, Olivier specialises in Japanese- style acupuncture for the treatment of male and female infertility, migraine, pain, and insomnia.www.olejusacupuncture.com