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BBC News 18 November, 2001

Acupuncture can improve the prospects of people with severe heart failure, research has shown.

Researchers found the ancient Chinese practice has the potential to dramatically reduce the pressure on the heart.

This is because it can reduce activity in the sympathetic nervous system, which regulates involuntary movements such as heartbeat and blood pressure.

Acupuncture has been used successfully and with long-range results in improving hypertension, and it may also be beneficial in lowering sympathetic nerve activity

Dr Holly Middlekauff

Over-activation of sympathetic nerves is common in heart failure patients.

It damages their long-term prospects because it forces the weakened heart to work harder, as the blood has to be forced through blood vessels that are constricted by the nervous activity.

It also makes it more likely that the heart will develop potentially lethal rhythm patterns.

The lead researcher is Dr Holly Middlekauff, of the University of California Los Angeles School of Medicine.

Increasing interest

She said: “There is an ever-increasing interest in alternative medicine. But until now, no one had looked at acupuncture’s effect on the very sickest heart failure patients.

“Our research represents a promising first step, but more study is definitely needed.”

Dr Middlekauff said advanced heart failure patients often had two or three times more sympathetic nerve activity than normal.

It has been shown that the greater this activity is, the worse the outlook for the patient.

The researchers divided 14 critically ill chronic heart failure patients referred for heart transplantation evaluation into three groups.

One group received acupuncture at traditional acupuncture sites.

The second received “non-acupoint” acupuncture in which needles were placed at sites not traditionally believed to be useful in acupuncture.

Finally, the third group had a “no-needle” simulation of the treatment, in which a needle holder is tapped to the back of their neck, but no needle was inserted.

Activation

Blood pressure, heart rate and sympathetic nerve activity were measured in all the patients following a four-minute mental stress test.

This involved, among other things, participants performing math problems in their heads and answering aloud.

Sympathetic nerve activation was significantly reduced in the acupuncture group.

Dr Middlekauff said further study is needed before acupuncture could be recommended as a routine treatment for patients with severe heart failure.

But she said: “Acupuncture has been used successfully and with long-range results in improving hypertension, and it may also be beneficial in lowering sympathetic nerve activity.”

The research was presented at a meeting of the American Heart Association.

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