Shingles is an extremely painful rash and ‘flu like illness, caused by the chickenpox virus (more details here). It is due to a re-activation of a previous infection. Most people who have shingles seek advice and treatment from their GP and a course of anti-viral tablets may be effective. However acupuncture also has a lot to offer. When the rash first appears, acupuncture can relieve some of the pain very quickly. More often, I see people who are having continuing pain and illness after the worst of the rash has gone – so-called post-herpetic neuralgia. These ongoing symptoms are difficult to treat by Western medicine such as painkillers but may respond well to a course of acupuncture treatment. I have also found acupuncture helpful for people who continue to get recurrences of shingles long after the acute attack is past.
Traditionally, Chinese medicine understands shingles in terms of the body being invaded by harmful pathogens. It was recognised that this ‘invasion’ could be a re-activation of latent pathogens from an earlier infection. It did not know these as viruses but described them as Heat, Damp and Wind. These pathogens block the normal circulation of Qi and when Qi is blocked it always causes pain. The Heat is obvious in the hot red rash and often a slight fever, and the Damp shows itself in the pus inside the spots. The sudden arrival of the rash is caused by the Wind.
It is important to treat both the immediate rash and pain and the underlying weakness or imbalance that allowed the pathogens to erupt again. So when I use acupuncture for shingles I start by helping the body to expel the Heat, Damp and Wind so that the Qi can move smoothly through the channels and the body tissues. Often there is an immediate improvement in symptoms but several treatments may be every few days to turn the corner in improvement. I am more likely to see you after the acute phases has passed but you are still having pain and maybe flare ups of milder rash. I have successfully treated people many months later, and once someone who had had shingle flare ups for several years. At this stage some clearing of Heat and Damp will still be needed but it is also important to consider you as a whole person and understand the underlying imbalances and which systems need strengthening. This constitutional work is a slower job, maybe every week or two for a couple of months or more but has many extra benefits. It is common for the imbalances that cause shingles to flare up are causing other health problems, or a feeling of general tiredness or emotional upset. By strengthening your constitution these other symptoms should improve along with your general feeling of wellbeing. Acupuncture can be used at the same time as Western medical treatment and usually allows people to gradually reduce or stop any shingles related medication.