ALS or Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gerhig’s disease, is a neurodegenerative disease that destroys both the upper and lower motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord. As the motor neurons are destroyed, lack of communication between the nerves and muscles begins to cause weakness and atrophy in the muscles of the arms and legs and cramping and twitching. Voluntary muscle control is diminished and balance may progressively worsen along with manual dexterity. There are often accompanying problems with speech, swallowing and respiration as the muscles controlling these functions are affected. The most common cause of death for patients with ALS is from respiratory failure and the average life span for patients diagnosed with ALS is roughly 4 years.
ALS is diagnosed in roughly 1 or 2 in 100,000 people each year worldwide. It affects men more than women and generally begins onset after the age of 50. Approximately 5% of ALS cases have a hereditary component while the other 95% have no known cause. According to wikipedia, of the 5% of cases where there is a hereditary component, roughly 20% are known to have a defect on chromosome 21 (coding for superoxide dismutase or SOD1). SOD1 is a powerful antioxidant that helps protect the body from superoxide: a powerful free radical that is generated in the mitochondiria. As of now there is no known cure for ALS and the only recognized treatments for ALS in “mainstream” medicine currently are physical and occupational therapy and the drug Riluzole.
I began researching the treatment of ALS with acupuncture and Chinese Medicine recently. From what I have seen in the literature so far, it looks like acupuncture and TCM might be one of the standout “alternative” therapies for helping improve the longevity and quality of life for patients with ALS. A 2010 study from Korea demonstrated that electroacupuncture on the point ST 36 (Zusanli) significantly improved motor activity and reduced neuronal cell loss in ALS mice. While it isn’t always possible to directly extrapolate possible benefits for humans from studies on mice, in many cases the effects are quite similar. I would also like to point out that they had very good results using a single acupuncture point with electrostimulation. What might the prospects be for using multiple combinations of points specifically for ALS?
An article that I came across by Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., Director, Institute for Traditional Medicine, Portland, Oregon, recaps a 1999 article written by Cheng Yongde. Cheng Yongde treated 46 ALS patients between 1980 and 1996 using acupuncture on points mainly on the Du Channel, DU 14 (Da Shui) and DU 16 (Feng Fu). He also treated the ALS patients with an herbal formula and taught them Chi Gong exercises. According to Doctor Dharmananda, “The results of therapy were classified into four categories: clinical remission, where atrophic muscles were largely restored, the patient then being able to manage daily activities and take place in social activities, or being able to survive with the disease more than ten years after diagnosis; markedly effective, where the ability of managing daily activities was enhanced somewhat, or being able to survive more than five years after diagnosis; fairly effective, muscular atrophy slows down, with survival over three years; ineffective, symptoms do not significantly improve with survival less than three years. Of the 46 patients, 6 appeared to have clinical remission; for 11 the treatment was markedly effective; for 24 it was fairly effective, and for 5 it was ineffective (the patients died within a few months time).” (see full article here.)
Acupuncture has a long history of being the go to alternative treatment when nothing else seems to work. It is a tried and true form of medicine that has demonstrable benefits on the cardiovascular system, nervous system, endocrine system, digestive system and the immune system. Chinese Medicine in short, is a medicine that is designed to affect the entire person. It is a holistic medicine in the truest sense of the term and it appears again in the case of ALS, that Chinese Medicine should be considered a best practice treatment where answers have otherwise not been found.
Terry M. Chen, Licensed Acupuncturist
Open Sky Acupuncture, Eugene Oregon