The short answer is that there is reason to believe that acupuncture is helpful for some of the non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Although high-quality research is limited, acupuncture is very safe, and there are limited pharmaceutical options for many of these non-motor symptoms.
Acupuncture traditionally is part of the whole medical system of Traditional Chinese Medicine, but in the West it is often practiced in isolation. Acupuncture is the insertion of fine needles into specific points traditionally believed to lie along energy pathways called meridians.
There have been few studies on the effects of acupuncture on the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Two reviews of the medical literature¹,² reported that there were some signs that acupuncture might be effective for some symptoms. However, there were not enough well designed studies to provide definitive proof.
One open label study was conducted at the University of Maryland in which all of the participants had Parkinson’s disease and received acupuncture for 5-8 weeks. Over 85% of patients reported an improvement in symptoms. There was a statistically significant improvement in sleep. Others improvements noted by the participants could not be statistically shown. There were no safety issues with the acupuncture treatments³.
Another small, preliminary study did not have enough evidence to prove benefit from acupuncture. However there was a trend for improvement in sleep, ease of activities of daily living, reduced of nausea, and improved quality of life⁴.
An interesting study looked at functional imaging of the brain while a single acupuncture point (GB34) was stimulated. It found very different patterns of activation in the brain with true acupuncture when compared to a sham acupuncture control. There was also improvement in a finger tapping task with the true acupuncture⁵.
Additionally, there are studies showing benefits for acupuncture for the treatment of common problems such as back pain⁶ and neck pain⁷. While these studies did not focus on people with Parkinson’s disease, people with Parkinson’s disease do often have these problems.
So, while the evidence may be sparse, there is little downside to trying acupuncture, other than the expense. Although it is not going to replace a person’s other medications for Parkinson’s disease, there is reason to be hopeful that acupuncture is helpful, especially for non-motor symptoms.
by Adam Simmons, MD
Director, Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center at Hospital for Special Care, New Britian, CT
Lam, Y. C., Kum, W. F., Durairajan, S. S. K., Lu, J. H., Man, S. C., Xu, M., et al. (2008). Efficacy and safety of acupuncture for idiopathic Parkinson’s disease: a systematic review. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, NY), 14(6), 663–671.
Lee, M. S., Shin, B.-C., Kong, J. C., & Ernst, E. (2008). Effectiveness of acupuncture for Parkinson’s disease: a systematic review. Movement disorders : official journal of the Movement Disorder Society, 23(11), 1505–1515.
Shulman, L. M., Wen, X., Weiner, W. J., Bateman, D., Minagar, A., Duncan, R., & Konefal, J. (2002). Acupuncture therapy for the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Movement disorders : official journal of the Movement Disorder Society, 17(4), 799–802.
Cristian, A., Katz, M., Cutrone, E., & Walker, R. H. (2005). Evaluation of acupuncture in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease: a double-blind pilot study. Movement disorders : official journal of the Movement Disorder Society, 20(9), 1185–1188.
Chae, Y., Lee, H., Kim, H., Kim, C.-H., Chang, D.-I., Kim, K.-M., & Park, H.-J. (2009). Parsing brain activity associated with acupuncture treatment in Parkinson’s diseases. Movement disorders : official journal of the Movement Disorder Society, 24(12), 1794–1802. doi:10.1002/mds.22673
Haake, M., Muller, H., Schade-Brittinger, C., & Basler, H. D. (2007). German Acupuncture Trials (GERAC) for Chronic Low Back Pain: Randomized, Multicenter, Blinded, …. Archives of Internal Medicine.
Irnich, D., Behrens, N., Gleditsch, J. M., Stör, W., Schreiber, M. A., Schöps, P., et al. (2002). Immediate effects of dry needling and acupuncture at distant points in chronic neck pain: results of a randomized, double-blind, sham-controlled crossover trial. Pain, 99(1-2), 83–89.