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Treating Numbness with Acupuncture

Chronic Numbness

Chronic numbness or paresthesia is due to inhibition of the nervous system and is from direct obstruction or damage to the nerve.  We’re all familiar with the pins-and-needles feeling or falling asleep on a limb, but in chronic numb conditions this sensation can persist along wtih itching, pain, and muscle spasm.  Perhaps the most common condition that results in obstruction of a nerve is carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), which presents with numbness in the thumb and first two finders (not numbness in the pinky finger, which is often mistaken as CTS).

East Asian Medicine

East Asian Medicine (EAM) looks at numbness as primarily the result of dampness or blood stasis.  EAM theory sees dampness as fluid in the body that isn’t performing any useful function – this would be very similar to congestion or inflammation that is causing obstruction of a nerve.  Blood stasis is a bit more difficult to define, and is usually thought of as a blockage in the small capillaries of the body.  In the case of numbness it is more similar to old physical trauma that never properly cleared up.

Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 3.47.31 PMNumbness that is due to damage of a nerve as the spinal cord, or from constriction around the spinal cord will cause numbness in the entire section of the body that nerve innervates (its dermatome- see images for a map).  In this case, treatment should be aimed at and around the spine.  But for areas of numbness that are smaller than a full dermatome or cross dermatomes, treatment should be aimed elsewhere, to address trauma, relieve constriction, or promote nerve growth.

Numbness Treatment Approaches

There are a number of treatment approaches for numbness that are unique to acupuncture practice.  Most obvious is inserting needles around the nerve root close to the spine for cases of numbness that clearly follow a dermatome.  For numbness that isn’t due to a problem at the nerve root, a technique known as plum blossom needling may be used, or also shallow needling along the surface of the skin around the numb area.  This method helps to promote nerve regrowth and training, and can help to stop itchiness or pain in cases where it is present.  Acupuncturists are also likely to burn mugwort in a technique known as moxabustion to promote blood circulation and break inflammatory cycles.  This last strategy is to help the body from a holistic perspective rather than treating numbness directly.

Numbness that is due to the damage of a nerve at the spinal cord or from constriction around the spinal Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 3.47.52 PMcord will cause numbness in the entire section of the body that nerve innervates (its dermatome – see images for a map). In this case, treatment should be aimed at and around the spine.  But for areas of numbness that are smaller than a full dermatome or cross dermatomes, treatment should be aimed elsewhere, to address trauma, relieve constriction, or promote nerve growth.

There are a number of treatment approaches for numbness that are unique to acupuncture practice.  Most obvious is inserting needles around the nerve root close to the spine for cases of numbness that clearly follow a dermatome.  For numbness that isn’t due to a problem at the nerve root, a technique known as plum blossom needling may be used, or also shallow needling along the surface of the skin around the numb area.  This method helps to promote nerve regrowth and training, and can help to stop itchiness or pain in cases where it is present.  Acupuncturists are also likely to burn mugwort in a technique known as moxabustion to promote blood circulation and break inflammatory cycles.  This last strategy is to help the body from a holistic perspective rather than treating numbness directly.

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