By: Rachel Gorman, MAOM, Lic.Ac.
Have you seen the shingles vaccine commercial? As animated nerve cells light up across the screen in what you have to assume is terrible pain, an ominous-voiced narrator says “If you’ve ever had chickenpox, the shingles virus is already inside you.” Every time I see it, I shudder. Hopefully you haven’t had shingles, and if you have then I’m sorry you had to go through it! But most people know at least one person who’s had shingles and have heard how painful the rash is. At best, the vaccine only reduces the risk of getting shingles by 50%, and it’s only available to certain demographics (for instance, I was told I was too young to get it). But did you know that acupuncture and herbal medicine is amazingly effective at treating shingles? It’s true!
First, a quick lesson on shingles: Shingles is the common name of the virus Herpes Zoster. It is due to a reactivation of the Varicella Zoster virus, aka chicken pox. Most people have had chicken pox and as that commercial described, if you’ve ever had chicken pox then the shingles virus is already inside you. After your body fights off chicken pox, the virus lays dormant in your nerve cells. When your body’s immune system is weak (often due to periods of high stress, and/or poor eating habits, and/or other illnesses), the virus can take advantage and shows up as shingles. It is usually felt as tingling pain 1-5 days before the rash appears. The rash itself is usually unilateral, affecting one side of a person’s flanks or trunk, although occasionally it will affect the head or other areas of the body. It can range from mild to severe, and generally lasts around 3-5 weeks, even with antiviral medications. Most doctors only prescribe the antivirals if you catch it within the first few days, as after that window they are considered ineffective. Some people are left with nerve pain that lasts months or even years after the rash disappears.
I can serve as a case study for you—I’ve actually had shingles twice. Both instances followed periods of extended stress (the more recent was during my acupuncture licensing board exams). The first time I had shingles was before I had ever experienced acupuncture. The second, I was about to graduate after studying and practicing TCM for 3.5 years. There’s some amazing differences in my two experiences:
That’s a pretty significant difference! In TCM, rashes like shingles (burning, stinging, painful, red, raised, blistered, etc.) fall into the category of Damp Heat Invasion. Interestingly, shingles almost always affects one of the two Shao Yang meridians along the sides of the body. So the TCM diagnosis is (almost always) Damp Heat Invading the Shao Yang Channels. The treatment principle for acupuncture, herbs and diet then becomes to Clear Heat, Drain Dampness, and Regulate the Channels. In addition to acupuncture and herbal medicine, I have added two western/biomedical elements to what I call my Shingles Treatment Protocol. The first is the supplement L-Lysine, and the second is dietary changes to increase lysine in the body. Lysine is an amino acid and it has a partner, Arginine. Lysine inhibits the replication of the virus, while arginine promotes it. So loading up on lysine and lysine-rich foods, while minimizing arginine-rich foods, can also make an enormous difference in your experience with shingles. Not only have I learned this myself through my own experience, but I’ve been able to treat several patients with shingles who saw their symptoms resolve within 1-2 weeks.
The Shingles Treatment Protocol
And there you have it! I sincerely hope no one reading this EVER has shingles, but if you or a loved on do end up with shingles, come in for treatment as soon as possible to minimize the duration and severity of the virus.