Shingles and Chinese Medicine

By Jiang Liu, Diplomate of Oriental Medicine
AR Licensed Acupuncturist and Herbalist
Acupuncture & Chinese Medicine Clinic
2024 Arkansas Valley Dr., Suite 402
Little Rock, AR 72212


Shingles is a disease caused by the same virus (herpes zoster) that causes chickenpox. In the United States, 9 out of 10 adults have had chickenpox. If you’ve had chickenpox, the virus can live, but remain inactive, in your body for many years. If it becomes active again — usually later in life — the chickenpox virus can cause you Shingles. So, if you’ve had chickenpox, you can get Shingles at any time. It is estimated that 1 million cases of Shingles occur in the United States every year. Almost half of those cases occur in adults 60 years of age or older and one out of 2 people living to age 85 will have Shingles. An outbreak of Shingles often follows a time of emotional stress.

Signs and Symptoms
Shingles usually affect only a small section of one side of your body such as the face, head, eye, scalp, shoulder, along ribs, abdomen, groin or thigh. The process can take 3 to 4 weeks. These signs and symptoms may include:

  • Pain, burning, numbness or tingling
  • A red rash that begins a few days after the pain
  • Fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over
  • Itching
  • Some people also experience:
  • Fever and chills
  • General achiness
  • Headache
  • Fatigue

Potential Complications
Shingles are extremely contagious. If a person hasn’t had chickenpox, he will get them instead of Shingles, once exposed to an infected person.

For most people, the pain from Shingles lessens as the rash heals. But for some people, Shingles can lead to more serious health problems — also known as complications. Here is a list of the potential complications that can be caused by Shingles:

  • Scarring
  • Bacterial skin infections
  • Decrease or loss of vision (Shingles near eye)
  • Decrease or loss of hearing (Shingles near the ear)
  • Paralysis on one side of the face
  • Muscle weakness
  • Allodynia
  • Long-term nerve pain called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN)

Conventional treatment
Anti-viral drugs, most effective within the first few days of the disease, can help shorten the outbreak of the virus, thus diminishing the possibility of developing PHN. Vitamin C and bioflavonoids may be helpful as they are thought to have anti-viral activity. Steroid can help to clear the Shingles in a short amount of time (but not for the patient who has compromised or weakened immune system). For pain related to an acute case of Shingles, pain medications either anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen or aspirin, or opioids are often used. If the patient does develop PHN, narcotics, anti-depressants, or epilepsy drugs are sometimes used.

Chinese medicine
In China, acupuncture is recognized as the most effective of all therapies for treating Shingles. Some clinic studies show that acupuncture is effective in facilitating pain relief and crust formation and some studies show that the effect of acupuncture is superior to conventional medication. Especially for those that are not responding to or for those who do not wish to take medications, acupuncture is an excellent and effective alternative for treating Shingles.

In Chinese Medicine, Shingles is considered caused by pathogenic damp, heat and wind in 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 greater itching sensation.

Shingles are categorized into three patterns of disharmony:

  • Liver and gallbladder fire manifests as red lesions and skin with burning pain and heat, dry mouth with a bitter taste, constipation, yellow urine, irritability, red tongue with a yellow coat and a wiry, rapid pulse.
  • Spleen and stomach damp heat presents with blisters containing thick and yellowish fluid that are easily broken, poor appetite, abdominal distention, pale tongue body with a sticky white or yellow coating, and a slippery rapid pulse.
  • qi and blood stagnation is usually the pattern with post herpetic pain and presents with a purple tongue, dark color at the former site of the herpes lesions, poor sleep and a wiry, thready pulse.

Location of the lesions indicates the meridians affected. Lesions on the flanks and intercostal areas involve the liver and gallbladder meridians. Lesions on the head and face involve the yangming and shaoyang meridians. Acupoints will be selected to address both the pathogenic factor and the meridian involved. Lesions may be involved in multiple meridians. Auricular acupuncture or acupressure via the application of vaccaria seeds can be used as a supplement for the body acupuncture. Once the blisters have healed, if pain persists, a technique called plum blossom needling can be used over the painful area. Another modality may be used is moxibustion.

In term of acupuncture treatment, timing is critical. The sooner the patients come for acupuncture as they have Shingles, the quicker they can recover and better results they can get. Regularly, the patients recover from Shingles after 10 to 12-times of treatment. Some patients may recover quicker and some may take longer time to recover.