Shingles is an infection of a nerve and the area of skin around it, caused by the herpes varicella-zoster virus (VZV). The same virus also causes chickenpox.
Shingles can occur at any age, but is most common in people who are over 50. It can affect any part of the body. Areas commonly affected include the neck, shoulder, upper back, chest, abdomen, and in some cases, even the face or eyes. It causes a painful rash which develops into itchy blisters. It can cause severe nerve pain that lasts for many months, or even years, after the rash has gone.
What causes shingles?
Many people may get chickenpox during childhood, but after recovery, the virus remains dormant (inactive) in the nervous system. The immune system stops the virus from becoming active. However, later in life it can be reactivated and cause shingles.
It is not known exactly why the shingles virus is reactivated at a later stage in life to cause shingles, but a potential reason include having lowered immunity. Some investigators suggest that the following conditions may be factors in contributing to virus reactivation:
• Conditions which affect your immune system, such as cancer, HIV and AIDS
• Chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments
• Injury of the skin where the rash occurs
It is not possible to catch shingles from someone with this condition; however, you can catch chickenpox if you’ve never had it before.
Symptoms of shingles
An episode of shingles will normally last for 2 to 4 weeks. The patient will generally feel a tingling sensation in the affected area at first. This will be followed by pain, and then a rash.
- Pain – patients experience a localized ‘band’ of pain in the affected area. The pain tends to be continuous, dull, or of a burning sensation and its intensity can vary from mild to severe. There may also be occasional stabbing pains. Some patients cannot even wear clothing or allow the area to be touched.
- Rash – several days after the onset of pain, the rash will appear. It starts off as red blotches on the skin, and rapidly develops into itchy blisters; similar to those of chickenpox. The blisters may be there for about one week, and then become yellowish, flat, and dried out. A minor scar may be left on the skin.
Sometimes there may be additional symptoms including confusion, fatigue, fever, headache, upset stomach, abdominal pains, etc.
Complications of shingles
Blisters produced during shingles
A number of complications can occur as a result of shingles. They are more likely if you have a weakened immune system or are elderly.
Post-herpetic neuralgia is the most common complication resulting from shingles. Some patients experience severe nerve pain if the nerves are damaged. The pain can last for a very long time; even months or years after the rash has disappeared.
Other possible complications include:
- A bacterial skin infection
- Scarring of the skin
- Encephalitis – inflammation of the brain
- Transverse myelitis – inflammation of the spinal cord
- Ophthalmic shingles – shingles affects part of the trigeminal nerve and can cause eye damage, affect vision and even cause blindness
- Otic Zoster – shingles affects the ears, and may result in the loss of hearing
- Bell’s palsy – causing the facial nerve to be paralysed
- Peripheral motor neuropathy – causing paralysis in the limb
TCM perspective of shingles
Shingles is explained in traditional Chinese medicine as the presence of pathogenic damp, heat and wind. It usually occurs along the liver or gall bladder meridians on the exterior of the body. If damp is predominant, the lesions are more likely to be in the lower part of the body, with more fluid discharge from the blisters. If heat predominates, blisters show more heat and redness and the pain is more severe. If wind predominates, the lesions are more likely to be in the upper part of the body with a more dominant itching sensation.
Acute shingles typically is either wind-fire or damp-heat in the liver and gallbladder meridian (the most common pattern), or damp-heat in the spleen. Either of these patterns can lead to stagnation of Qi & blood, which is seen in post-herpetic neuralgia.
The common patterns seen in chronic shingles are kidney Yin deficiency and Qi & blood deficiency, both of which are often complicated by some degree of Qi & blood stagnation.
TCM diagnosis deals more directly with the patient’s bodily condition, or “internal environment”. The diagnosis of “damp heat” actually relates to the condition of the patient’s system, which allows the virus to replicate and create the outbreak. This diagnosis also allows the practitioner to provide the patient with practical, simple guidelines on what to do to help speed their recovery through means such as dietary advice (e.g. hot and spicy foods, fried foods and alcohol should be avoided during a shingles outbreak as they contribute to further “dampness and heat” within the body.)
Treatment for shingles
There is no cure for shingles in the perspective of western medicine, but treatment can help ease the symptoms of shingles.
Treatment options include:
- Antiviral medication to help stop the virus multiplying
- Pain medicines, antidepressants, and topical creams to relieve symptoms
TCM treatment of shingles is based on pattern differentiation according to the pathogenic factor and the energy meridian involved.
Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine has proven to be very effective in treating shingles, especially when in the first stages. Not only can it alleviate the excruciating pain and treat the blisters and rash, but TCM treatment during an acute shingles outbreak can significantly reduce the risk of post-herpetic neuralgia.
Likewise, post-herpetic neuralgia, though a very stubborn and painful condition, can be treated with acupuncture and Chinese herbal remedies. Again, it is much better to go for treatment sooner rather than later in this condition as well.
According to TCM, shingles usually affects older patients whose constitutional energy is deficient, or younger patients who are suffering from exhaustion. The more pronounced the weakness of the patient, the greater the likelihood of complications, and the more prolonged the course of the disease is likely to be. Unless the underlying condition is successfully dealt with, the possibility of relapse or prolongation of the disease is very high.
Dr. Jim Xing of our clinic has successfully treated many cases of shingles, some in the early stages and others in mid to late stages. He has also successfully treated many patients with post-herpetic neuralgia. He emphasizes that everyone who is unfortunate enough to develop shingles should get acupuncture and herbal treatment as soon as possible. The earlier the treatment started, the lower the likelihood of post-herpetic neuralgia and the more promising the outcome. He also stresses that the more often you are treated up front, the shorter the duration and the quicker the recovery of the shingles.
Do not hesitate to try Chinese acupuncture and herbal medicine for shingles! It is effective, low risk and, in the long run, benefits your general wellbeing.
Helped at the centre:
Using acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine, Dr. Xing has treated many cases of shingles, including a large number of which were unable to be treated using other methods. Below is an example of a patient who had previously suffered from a severe case of shingles, and found relief after visiting our clinic:
A 43 year old lady had been suffering from shingles eight years ago. In the past two weeks before seeing Dr. Xing, the condition had returned, with a very large blistered area on her back. Her symptoms included severe itchiness, pain and tiredness. She decided to visit our clinic, where Dr. Xing diagnosed that her condition was caused by damp-heat in the liver and gallbladder meridian, and used acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine to treat the condition. Within one week, the condition had improved significantly, and by the second week, she was completely free of any symptoms. She continued with the treatment for another few months, and ended up avoiding post-herpetic neuralgia.