Of all the common names of diseases, shingles must rank up there as being one of the strangest and worst sounding diseases to have. I wanted to write about this disease to help people better understand this relatively common ailment. Shingles, which is medically known as “herpes zoster”, is simply the reactivation of the chicken pox virus (varicella-zoster).
Anyone who has had chicken pox can therefore, theoretically have shingles later in life.
When someone has chicken pox, most of the virus is killed off, but a few of the virus remain dormant in the sensory nerves, and this same virus can then cause shingles when the immune system becomes weakened. Normally, our immune system is strong enough to keep the virus from reactivating, however, our immune system naturally becomes weaker with age, and this is why most people who develop shingles are older than 60.
Shingles is often called an opportunistic infection and can appear during periods of intense stress, the use of corticosteroid, immune suppressant or anticancer drugs, or following a surgery.
As usual, prevention is the best policy by keeping your immune system strong with healthy meals three times a day, daily exercise, proper rest, and the practice of stress reducing techniques such as yoga, tai-chi, or meditation.
The first symptom of a herpes zoster attack is usually pain or tingling over the affected area. A few days later, a red rash then appears. The red bumps soon turn to virus-filled blisters which are contagious for anyone who has not already had chicken pox. These blisters then dry, crust, and turn yellow. Eruptions usually occur on only one side of the body, either over the ribs, on one half of the face, or as a strip on one half of the neck and arm, or on the lower body. A herpes zoster attack accompanied by eye pain should be reported to a physician immediately, because ophthalmic herpes zoster may have serious complications. Standard biomedical treatments include analgesics for pain, soothing lotions such as aloe vera, wet compresses, and steroids.
Acyclovir taken at the first sign of an outbreak may reduce the severity of symptoms, so it is important to see your medical doctor at the first sign of shingles.
Without treatment, the lesions which result from the reactivation of the virus usually last about 3 weeks.
In some cases, the pain can persist after the lesions have completely healed.
This is called post herpetic neuralgia and is due to nerve damage which sends a confused pain signal to the brain. It may be serious and can persist for many months. Some of my patients have likened it to the pain from sciatica. Heat, cold, clothes brushing against the skin, or even wind blowing on the affected area can be unbearable. Doctors will often prescribe analgesics again for the pain. It appears that acetaminophen (Tylenol) works better than non-steroid anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen for reducing the pain.
For those who are not responding to or for those who do not wish to take medications, acupuncture is an excellent and effective alternative for treating and getting rid of the pain.
Since the shingles virus attacks the nerve sensors located under the skin, it not only magnifies the pain and heat signals, but it is also often resistant to pain medications.
Acupuncture puts a strong emphasis on boosting the patient’s own immune system to fight off or deactivate the virus. This provides lasting relief, rather than numbing the pain for temporary relief. At the same time, the treatment is aimed at calming the pain and helping to stimulate the patient’s body to repair the nerve damage caused by the virus.