Shingles (herpes zoster) is a viral infection that causes a painful skin rash with fluid-filled blisters. The rash is usually limited to one side of the body, occuring along the spine and running towards the chest and abdomen, but it can also appear on the head or on the arms and legs on one side. Normally the blisters disappear within a couple of days to weeks, but the pain remains. As long as the fluid-filled blisters are there the disease is contagious.
Shingles causes symptoms of pain, burning, numbness,tingling, and itching. It may also be accompanied by fever and chills, general achiness, headaches, and fatigue. In severe cases, the skin can be so irritated that it makes wearing clothing or even covering it with a bedsheet very painful, thus interfering with sleep and daily activities.
The same virus that causes chickenpox causes shingles. After a case of chickenpox the virus disappears, but remains dormant in the nervous system of the body and can return years later in periods of stress or fatigue (low resistance). Sometimes shingles can cause a painful complication called post-herpatic neuralgia, where the skin remains painful and sensitive to the touch long after the shingles has cleared up- a condition can last a very long time and with no real solution.
In Western Medicine shingles may be treated with painkillers, tranquilizers and steroids. When diagnosed in an early stage antiviral drugs may bring some relief. There are also vaccines which may help to prevent shingles.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) shingles are caused by a condition called liver fire and damp-heat. The dampness causes the fluids in the blisters and heat causes the redness, burning and itching of the skin. With this internal environment of heat in the liver and damp heat in the spleen, the virus is able to quickly grow and easily penetrate into the blood and move throughout the body. Commonly if there is more dampness there will be more blistering of fluids and will appearing in the lower parts of the body. If heat is predominant there will less fluids, and the blisters will show more redness and severe pain, and lesions can show on the upper part of the body.
Acupuncture is a very effective tool in the treatment of shingles. An acupuncturist uses points to remove stagnation, which is commonly the cause of heat building up in the liver. This will help clear the blood and cool the heat. We can also use points to strengthen the energy of the spleen, to help dredge the dampness and heat. Treatments can help to reduce the pain and inflammation of the nerves, boost the immune system, and promote healing and a faster, more complete recovery.
With shingles, it is very important not to delay treatment as early treatment can ease pain, speed healing, and reduce the risk of complications, such as postherpetic neuralgia. The longer the onset of shingles, the more damage the virus can do to the nerve roots and the harder it can be to treat it. A very advanced case of shingles can take many more treatments to resolve, as compared to patients with very early stages of shingles who have seen the problem clear up very quickly with acupuncture.
James Kaufman is a Registered Acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, at 1625 Ellis St, Kelowna BC.