Author: Kathleen Davis FNP
Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine that involves inserting thin needles into specific points on the body. Some evidence suggests that this alternative medicine can help relieve pain and may have some benefit for providing relief from painful complications of shingles.
Shingles is a viral infection resulting from the reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus (VZV), which is the same virus that causes chickenpox. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 out of every 3 people in the United States will develop shingles in their lifetime.
Shingles pain and other symptoms typically develop in stages over the course of the condition, which usually lasts for 3–5 weeks. A common complication of shingles is postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), which is a severe, ongoing nerve pain that can last for months or years. Evidence suggests that 10–18% of people who get shingles will experience PHN, and the risk of PHN increases with age.
While there is currently no known cure for shingles, many treatment options are available. Although acupuncture may remain controversial among some Western medical doctors and scientists, studies suggest that it can help relieve pain, such as discomfort from shingles.
In this article, we will discuss what acupuncture is, and the effectiveness of acupuncture and other treatment options for shingles.
Those who practice acupuncture state that pain and other disease symptoms occur when the network of qi channels stagnate. Therefore, acupuncturists gently use the needles to improve the flow and balance of a person’s qi to help relieve symptoms.
Some evidence suggests that it can help to relieve nerve pain, such as painful shingles rashes. While scientists still do not fully understand how acupuncture may work, some research indicates that it may aid in the release of natural pain-relieving chemicals, help regulate blood pressure and flow, and reduce inflammation.
Organizations that promote the benefits of acupuncture suggest that it can help provide pain relief. The British Acupuncture Council states that while more research is necessary, acupuncture may help to relieve painful symptoms of shingles.
A 2019 systematic review and meta-analysis reports that acupuncture may reduce pain intensity, relieve anxiety, and improve the quality of life in people who have PHN. This is consistent with a 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis, which adds that while there is not enough evidence to suggest acupuncture is superior to other treatments, it is generally safe and may be effective for providing pain relief.
Current evidence suggests that other factors, such as a person’s expectation or belief unrelated to acupuncture, may play a role in the pain-relieving effects of acupuncture. As researchers are only beginning to understand the potential benefits of the technique, this highlights the necessity for more research.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), experts generally consider acupuncture safe when performed by an experienced, licensed, and well-trained practitioner using sterile needles. However, the NCCIH also adds that acupuncture can cause serious adverse effects, including injury to the central nervous system.
A 2017 case report notes an example of an individual developing shingles after receiving acupuncture in the ear for back pain treatment. However, the paper could not attribute the shingles case to acupuncture. While it may be possible that the auricular acupuncture triggered the shingles flare, it is more likely unrelated or an extremely rare event.
Some other treatment options for shingles may include:
A doctor may prescribe antiviral medications to treat shingles, such as:
- acyclovir (Zovirax)
- famciclovir (Famvir)
- valacyclovir (Valtrex)
Antivirals may shorten the length and severity of shingles. Antiviral medicines are most effective when a person starts them within 72 hours after the shingles rash appears.
The CDC recommends that healthy adults ages 50 years and older get the shingles vaccine, known as Shingrix. A pharmacist or doctor gives a person two doses of the vaccine 2–6 months apart.
Although it is not a treatment, Shingrix offers powerful protection against shingles and PHN.
A person may take over-the-counter (OTC) pain medicines to help relieve pain due to shingles. For example, people may consider using capsaicin creams to help relieve pain. Capsaicin is an active component of chili peppers and may provide relief by affecting nerves associated with pain.
A doctor may also prescribe certain medications to help relieve a person’s shingles pain. Examples include:
- tricyclic antidepressants such as nortriptyline
Wet compresses, soaks, and calamine lotion
A person can apply a clean, damp, and cool washcloth to their rash several times a day for 5–10 minutes each time. Alternatively, people can also try bathing in cool water with added baking soda, uncooked oatmeal, or colloidal oatmeal.
Individuals may also consider using calamine lotion as it may provide a soothing and cooling effect on the skin. A person can gently apply the lotion after the shingles blisters have scabbed over.
Handling stress in healthy ways may help a person with their shingles pain. Suggestions include:
- getting plenty of sleep
- staying physically active
- reducing or avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and other recreational drugs
- practicing relaxation techniques
- trying yoga or tai chi
- talking to friends and loved ones
- doing activities that help take a person’s mind off the pain, such as reading books, listening to music, engaging in hobbies, or learning something new
While more research is necessary, some people may consider essential oils, such as peppermint, thyme, and lemon, to ease pain and itchiness associated with shingles.
However, some people may experience reactions to these oils, such as skin irritation. A person should always talk with their doctor before applying essential oils to their shingles rash. Additionally, people should dilute essential oils in a carrier oil before applying them to the skin.
When to contact a doctor
A person with symptoms of shingles should contact their doctor as soon as possible to discuss treatment options. If they experience ongoing painful symptoms, such as PHN, they can ask their doctor about pain relief options, such as acupuncture.
If acupuncture does not relieve shingles pain or makes it worse, it is advisable for a person to stop acupuncture treatment and contact their doctor for alternative options.
Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine technique that practitioners may use to treat chronic pain conditions. As such, people may consider it as an option to relieve painful symptoms of shingles. While it may provide some relief, more research is necessary to determine its effectiveness.
Shingles pain can be severe and disrupt a person’s overall well-being. Along with acupuncture, other treatment options for shingles pain can include antivirals, pain medication, cool compresses, and the shingles vaccine.