Acupuncture for Epilepsy

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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If you have epilepsy, your neurologist has undoubtedly prescribed at least one type of medication to help with your seizures.

Indeed, the most common treatment for this neurological disorder is medication—typically some type of anticonvulsant medication, which varies based on a person's medical history and the type and severity of the seizures. However, medication doesn't work for everyone. Some people opt for surgery when they discover that medication can't adequately control their seizures or causes serious side effects.

Even surgery is not a surefire cure. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) notes about 25 to 30% of people with epilepsy will still have trouble with seizures, despite treatment with meds or surgery.

So some people consider turning to complementary therapies such as acupuncture for some relief. The reasoning often goes like this: since many people have found relief from pain or nausea through acupuncture sessions, it's possible that acupuncture could help in other situations, too.

How Acupuncture Works

Acupuncture has been practiced for hundreds of years as part of traditional Chinese medicine. The premise is that energy flows through the body along a series of channels called meridians. This energy, or qi, has two forces—yin and yang—that must be in balance.

However, these forces can get out of balance. During a session, a practitioner gently inserts a series of tiny fine needles into various pressure points on the body in an attempt to unblock this energy flowing through the body. This is supposed to restore balance to the body.

According to the National Cancer Institute, there are 360 points on the body where the meridians reach the surface and where the energy can be unblocked. The placement of the needles depends on the condition that's problematic.

Acupuncture Gains More Acceptance

The research into the benefits of acupuncture continues, although scientists sometimes disagree about the efficacy of acupuncture—is it just the placebo effect at work, or can it be attributed to something more concrete like the release of certain neurotransmitters in the brain?

But there's no doubt that acupuncture is much more mainstream in the United States now than it once was. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration approved the acupuncture needle as a medical device in 1996, according to the National Cancer Institute, and it is often used to help relieve some the unpleasant side effects of cancer treatment. It's also used frequently to help people who suffer with chronic pain, although the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) notes the clinical practice guidelines tend to be on the inconsistent side.

For now, the evidence about the effect acupuncture can have for people with epilepsy is pretty inconclusive. Researchers recently analyzed a series of research studies involving acupuncture and epilepsy for the Cochrane Library. They looked at 17 randomized controlled trials and concluded that acupuncture didn't have "excess adverse events" for the people who tried it—that is, they didn't experience terrible side effects—but it didn't really improve their epilepsy either. They concluded that acupuncture's effectiveness and safety is "uncertain" when it comes to treating people with epilepsy.

Acupuncture is not the only alternative or complementary therapy that people with epilepsy are trying—some have found some relief through herbal therapies and supplements or through chiropractic therapy. But according to the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center at NYU Langone Medical Center, there's no solid scientific evidence to back up claims that those treatments actually work.

Would it hurt if you tried it? The answer is "no." Talk to your doctor if you're interested in trying acupuncture or other complementary therapies. Also, it's advisable to verify that your acupuncture practitioner has a license or certification from the state to practice acupuncture.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Feb 23
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