Acupressure eases Alzheimer’s agitation

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April 10, 2007  
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Reuters – The ancient practice of acupressure may be able to calm the aggressive behaviour that often results from dementia, a small study suggests.

One of the most common symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia is agitation. It’s expressed in any number of ways. Some people with dementia yell at or physically attack other people, while others habitually undress themselves or wander.

Agitation not only puts dementia patients at risk of injury, but also makes their overall care even more challenging.

In the new pilot study, Taiwanese researchers looked at whether acupressure could offer a relatively simple way to address the problem.

Long used in traditional Chinese medicine, acupressure is based on the same principles as acupuncture, but employs touch rather than needles. According to traditional theory, stimulating particular points on the skin helps balance the flow of energy, or “chi,” throughout the body.

With acupressure, practitioners use their fingers to stimulate these “acupoints,” making it a form of massage, said study co-author Dr Li-Chan Lin of National Yang-Ming University in Taipei.

Dr Lin’s team tested the technique among 31 dementia patients at one nursing home. For four weeks, each patient received a 15-minute acupressure treatment twice a day, five days a week.

As a comparison therapy, the researchers spent another four weeks visiting the patients each day for a 15-minute talk. Twenty of the 31 patients were able to complete the study.

Overall, Dr Lin’s team found, acupressure eased patients’ agitation far better than the talking approach. What’s more, the therapy seemed to calm patients’ behaviour immediately and reduce their episodes of aggression over the four-week treatment period.

This suggests that acupressure could be used to ease patients’ symptoms and also to prevent symptoms from occurring in the first place, the researchers said.

A recent research review found evidence that various forms of touch therapy, such as gentle massage, can calm dementia patients’ anxiety and agitation.

The authors speculated that it’s the simple act of human contact that might explain the benefit. For people whose ability to communicate has been taken away by dementia, physical touch may be the easiest or only way for them to connect with others.

With its more than 2000-year history in Chinese medicine, acupressure is a widely accepted form of touch therapy in Taiwan, Dr Lin said.

Because of its similarity to massage, the researcher added, acupressure might also be readily accepted as a dementia therapy in Western cultures as well.